The Great Snowstorm — or actually, the Great Wintry Mix Storm
The Tehachapi Mountains experienced California’s wild ride of winter weather last week with a storm that began on Wednesday, Feb. 22 and continued through Saturday night, Feb. 26. The storm brought a true “wintry mix,” as the National Weather Service calls it, of a variety of precipitation: snow, graupel, sleet and rain.
Over four days, the clouds brought nearly three inches of precipitation, which was a welcome water delivery to a thirsty land. There are sumps, catch basins and low areas that were empty before the most recent weather and now have several feet of standing water.
The Tehachapi Unified School District canceled classes on multiple days because of the weather, and school closures for this winter now total six days, which is more than TUSD students have experienced for years (putting aside the online days of the pandemic, of course).
There had been predictions of possibly several feet of snow locally, but the temperature warmed up a few degrees on Friday afternoon to 39 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, during the height of the storm, and what would have been more than a foot of snow fell as rain before turning back into snow in the night.
A few months ago I wrote about a type of precipitation called graupel that usually falls a few times every year, and it too was part of our recent wintry mix. Graupel is also referred to as “snow pellets” and that’s a good description because graupel is basically rounded snowflakes — the Dippin’ Dots of precipitation.
While commonly mistaken for hail, graupel actually consists of snow, and is not hard ice, like hail.
The word graupel is the diminutive form of the German word graupe, which means “pearl barley” and was first used in a weather report in 1889.
In the Tehachapi Mountains, graupel usually falls after we have gotten some snow already. Graupel begins as a snowflake, then as it falls through the atmosphere, if it encounters supercooled water droplets, these droplets will freeze and adhere to the snowflake.
By the time it hits the ground, it is no longer an elegant, mostly flat snowflake, but is instead a rounded pellet of snow.
We had about an hour’s worth of graupel falling on Wednesday morning, after an inch or two of snow had already accumulated.
Once you know what it is, graupel is immediately recognizable, because the little round pellets are just as white as snow, not partially clear or gray like hail and sleet, and they are also soft and squishable between your thumb and finger.
The Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) word for snow is nüvüvi, pronounced nuh-VUH-v. There are a number of Nuwä words that are onomatopoetic, meaning that the sound of the word is reminiscent of the actual thing that the word describes, like the word “wogit” (wah-GIT) for Pacific Chorus Frogs.
I think the word nüvüv for snow belongs indirectly in this category, since the word has a soft sound, like footsteps in fluffy snow.
The late February snowstorm was epic in some areas, generating one of only two blizzard warnings ever issued for some parts of Southern California, and the first one since 1989. Areas like Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita that seldom get any snow had enough for snowball fights, sledding and even snowmen (maybe using every bit of the snow in a front yard).
The storm wasn’t as record setting for most of our area, since a lot of the precipitation fell as rain on Friday afternoon, and there was also some melting between successive snowfalls. However, Diana Palmer, the caretaker of Oak Creek Canyon and its wild black mustangs, reported that she had 30 inches of snow at her place in the canyon just east of Oak Creek Pass.
Whether snow, graupel, sleet or rain, the precipitation was needed and is appreciated by the plants, animals and humans of the Tehachapi Mountains. And California in general.
Those who care about water issues in the state still have one response to stormclouds this year: bring it. . .
Have a good week.