Why Does the Pacific Northwest Get SO Much Snow?

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Mt. Bachelor, OR on January 23rd, 2012 after 100" of snow in 7 days. Carousel Lift. photo: bachelor
Mt. Bachelor, OR on January 23rd, 2012 after 100″ of snow in 7 days. Carousel Lift. photo: bachelor

It’s no secret that the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America receives copious amounts of snow.  Oregon and Washington get hammered every winter with constant snowstorms all season long.  There’s really no such thing as a bad winter in the Pacific Northwest…

Mt. Baker in Washington has the world record for annual snowfall at 1,140 inches in a single year and they average 655” of snow per year.  Mt. Bachelor, in central Oregon, cranks out 462” of average annual snowfall.  Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, Oregon averages 551” per year.  In fact, there are at least 7 ski resorts in Oregon & Washington that average over 400” of snow per year.  That’s nuts.

December 2015 storm hitting the PNW hard.
December 2015 storm about to hit the PNW hard.

The real question here is:  Why?  Why does the Pacific Northwest get so much snow?  Why do they get more snow than anywhere else on Earth?

The answer is an interesting combination that you need to see to understand what keeps the Pacific Northwest snow machine firing:  

Jet Stream + Gulf of AlaskaCyclogenesis 


Big Snow in PNW

(Cyclogenesis is the strengthening of a low pressure area/system)

In it’s most basic form, this system is pretty simple:  

The Gulf of Alaska creates storms, Cyclogenesis intensifies them, and the Jet Stream tends to blow them right into the Pacific Northwest.

Luckily for the Pacific Northwest, the Jet Stream blows right into Oregon and Washington most of the time.  The Pacific Northwest just happens to be in the exact right spot to consistently get nailed by these big storms coming out of the Gulf of Alaska.

Jet Stream adding moisture to Gulf of Alaska storms while cyclogenesis occurs before the low pressure systems slam into the Pacific Northwest.

We asked a weather expert, Meteorologist Rob Guarino:

Why The Pacific Northwest Gets More Snow Than Anywhere Else?

“In the Pacific NW, the Gulf of Alaska lies to the northwest. This expanse of water is a cyclogenesis  region – where mid-latitude (storms) are regularly generated by specific physical processes. After a storm forms in this region, the northern jet stream, which moves from west to east as a result of the Coriolis Effect [the spinning of the Earth] tends to send it to the Pacific Northwest.” – Rob Guarino

The Jet Stream’s track generally favors the Pacific Northwest so these intensified storms generally run right into Oregon and Washington.  Of course, the Jet Stream does meander, so occasionally these big storms drift down into California or up into British Columbia or higher.

How Orographic Lift works.
How Orographic Lift works.

Once these storms get to the Pacific Northwest, Orographic Lift also adds to the amounts of snow that Oregon and Washington receive each winter.  Orographic lift is when mountains force lower down, warmer air up into higher up, colder air as an airmass moves over a mountain range.  As the warm air hits the cold air, the moisture in the warmer air condenses as the air cools as it rises and this creates more clouds and more precipitation.

The cascade range in Oregon and Washington is set up perfectly to wring out all the moisture from these large storms parading in from the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Northwest from space in Spring 2015
The Pacific Northwest from space in Spring/Summer 2015

In conclusion, the reasons why the Pacific Northwest gets so much snow has a lot to do with it’s location.  Oregon and Washington are fortunate to have the storm generating Gulf of Alaska upwind to their Northeast.  The Gulf of Alaska storms get intensified by cyclogenesis and then the Jet Stream more often than not blows those storms right into the Pacific Northwest.  Once the storms get to Oregon and Washington, Orographic Lift helps wring every drop of moisture out of those storms leaving the Cascade mountains buried in world record amounts of snow.

It might be time for you to head up to the Pacific Northwest and see what all this snow looks like for yourself…


Top 10 Snowiest Ski Resorts in the Pacific Northwest

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11 thoughts on “Why Does the Pacific Northwest Get SO Much Snow?

  1. Rainier holds the record for the most snowfall in a snow year (October to October) at 1234”. Baker holds the record for the most snowfall in a winter.

    1. they mean in the mountains ..Mt Baker hold the record for most snow in a year..and Mt Rainier held the record for like 50 years

  2. Might need to reevaluate this article after the winter (or lack of) the Pacific Northwest is having this year.

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