A Monster Storm

Ice-coated oaks at sunset, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Ice-coated oaks at sunset, Mariposa County, CA, USA

California got hit by a big storm. It was actually a series of storms that started last Friday and ended late Tuesday, but it felt like one long storm because there was little break between the systems. We didn’t see the sun in Mariposa from Friday until Tuesday.

Yosemite Valley received 8 1/2 inches of precipitation (rain and snow equivalent) since Friday. That’s the largest amount I remember seeing over such a short period. (There was probably more rain during the ’97 flood, but I didn’t pay attention to the rain totals then).

In the beginning the temperatures were warm, so it rained at the 4,000-foot elevation in Yosemite Valley. But on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday the temperatures hovered near freezing, bringing some wet snow, then rain, then more wet snow. Late Monday the thermometer dropped further, and by midday Tuesday there was over two feet of snow on the valley floor.

Of course at higher elevations it was all snow. Mammoth Mountain, just 32 miles southeast of Yosemite Valley, got 7 1/2 to 11 feet of snow. Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,600 feet in the Yosemite high country, got 97 inches of new snow (about eight feet).

You could see the snow piling up on the Yosemite Conservancy’s Sentinel Dome webcam. I put together a time-lapse video of this webcam from Saturday to Wednesday, where you can literally see the Sierra snowpack growing hour-by-hour and day-by-day:

I watched the storms closely. It was a really interesting weather event, but I also wanted to see whether it might snow in Yosemite Valley, and when the storm might clear.

By Sunday all the forecasts indicated that the storm would probably clear on Tuesday afternoon or evening. But some forecasts also indicated the possibility that Yosemite Valley could get a lot of snow – perhaps two to three feet.

That kind of snowfall is rare in Yosemite Valley. Claudia and I lived right in the valley for over 20 years, and the biggest snow dumps I can remember were maybe about 18 to 20 inches. In March of 2011 the valley got three feet of snow within a few days – an event locals called “Snowmageddon.”

“Snowmageddon” closed the park for a week as crews fixed downed power lines and cleared the roads of fallen oak limbs. As I watched this recent storm and looked at the forecasts, I knew that if the valley got a lot of snow the roads would probably close. And even if they stayed open, driving and walking around would be difficult.

By Monday afternoon the only road open into the valley was Highway 140. That evening the park service closed all the roads, and advised visitors and employees in the valley to stay inside to avoid falling limbs.

Tuesday morning the valley looked quite snowy on the webcams, but it was hard to tell how much snow was on the ground. One second-hand report I got said 2 1/2 feet. The roads were still closed, so I couldn’t go see for myself.

Here in Mariposa the sun started breaking through, off and on, late in the morning. We had received about four inches of snow overnight. Snow is a pretty rare event at our elevation of 2,800 feet, and since I couldn’t get up to the valley I took advantage of the conditions and photographed snowy oaks near our house:

Valley oaks in snow, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Valley oaks in snow, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Valley oaks with falling snow, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Valley oaks with falling snow, Mariposa County, CA, USA

At around 3:00 p.m. I could see sunlight hitting Yosemite Valley on the webcams. It looked beautiful, but the roads were still closed. So I decided to drive up a local mountain to see if I could get a view east toward the mountains as the storm was clearing.

But I never made it to the top of the mountain, because on the drive up I saw some beautiful, backlit oaks. Snow had melted from their branches and left clumps of ice, glittering like Christmas ornaments in the late-afternoon light.

A bird in hand, as the saying goes, so I found a place to pull over and made some photographs. I stopped again a little higher up to photograph a lingering rain squall over the Central Valley. Driving higher still, I spotted some beautifully-shaped oaks with ice and snow coating their branches, backlit by the setting sun. It was a breathtakingly beautiful sight, so I had to stop again. The photograph at the top of this post is the last one I made that evening; here are a few earlier images:

Ice ornaments on an oak tree, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Ice ornaments on an oak tree, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Rain squall over the Central Valley from the Sierra foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Rain squall over the Central Valley from the Sierra foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Oak tree encased in ice and snow, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Oak tree encased in ice and snow, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Blue oaks coated in snow and ice, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Blue oaks coated in snow and ice, Mariposa County, CA, USA

At noon on Wednesday the roads into Yosemite Valley reopened, so I decided to go see all the new snow. And there was a lot of it. I measured 22 inches in Sentinel Meadow, but it had probably melted and settled a bit by then, so I’m sure there was over two feet on the ground the day before.

By 4:00 p.m. some of the recently-fallen moisture had evaporated and formed a bank of condensation clouds over most of the valley. I could still see some blue sky in the east end of the valley, so I headed that way and captured some images of Half Dome:

Half Dome and the Merced River in winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and the Merced River in winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Then the clouds closed in, so I drove back to the west end, ending up at Tunnel View. A look at the westward-facing webcam on Turtleback Dome showed a band of clear sky near the horizon, so I knew there was a good chance that the sun would break underneath the clouds and hit El Capitan. And sure enough, just before sunset a strip of light started inching across the slope across from Tunnel View, eventually reaching El Cap:

El Capitan at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

El Capitan at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Although I didn’t get to photograph the clearing storm in Yosemite Valley, I was very happy with what I did get to photograph – especially the backlit, ice-coated oaks Tuesday evening. And it was an epic storm that I’ll long remember.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Yosemite Closed by Storm; A Clearing Storm by Starlight

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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