Lake Tahoe sees over 17 feet of snow in December, crushing records

This record snow came after a year of extreme heat and drought.

December 29, 2021, 3:41 PM

Following a year of both extreme heat and drought, Lake Tahoe has seen a record-breaking amount of snow this December, according to the U.C. Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab.

The Tahoe area has seen 212 inches of snow since the beginning of the month, the lab, based in Soda Springs, California, reported Wednesday. That makes this month the third snowiest on record and the snowiest December ever, per tracking from the lab that started in 1970.

If weather modeling holds up, it's possible December could also overtake the current No. 2 record holder, February 2019, which saw a whopping 221 inches of snow, Dr. Andrew Schwartz, who works at the lab, told ABC News.

According to data from the lab, typically about 110 inches of snow will have fallen by Jan. 1 in a given water year, which begins on Oct. 1. But, so far, 2021 has already seen 264 inches of snowfall, putting the region at 258% of its average for this point in the year and breaking the 51-year-old October through December snowfall record of 260 inches set in 1970.

This handout photo obtained on Dec. 27, 2021, from Caltrans Distric 3, shows Highway 50/Lake Tahoe Boulevard, in Lake Tahoe, Calif., covered in snow.
Caltrans Distric 3 via AFP via Getty

California recorded its second driest water year on record in 2021, according to a report from the state's Department of Water Resources. But there's hope that the abnormal amount of snow the Sierra has seen could help break the state's ongoing drought.

"The snowfall that we've received has given us an amazing start to the water year and developed a solid foundation for upcoming snow," Schwartz said, "but we still need average or above average snowfall in the upcoming months for it to impact the drought."

Schwartz added that the lab has recorded receiving 70% of its average annual snowfall already, "which is great because the remaining four months with snow only need to make up that remaining 30%."

He cautioned, however, that if those months end up being dry, then California could end up short of its average snowfall and there won't be any improvement in the drought at all.

Snow is pictured in a Lake Tahoe residential backyard in this still image from a video in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Dec. 27, 2021.
K.C. Budd via Reuters

The Sierra snowpack typically holds about a third of California's water reservoirs, but several are still running lower than normal, even with the increased precipitation.

Data from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has shown mild improvement in California's drought, with 79% of the state in an extreme or exceptional drought as of Dec. 21, down from 88% three months ago.

"So, we're off to an incredibly promising and exciting start," Schwartz said, "but we need some cautious optimism going forward."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of feet of snow.

ABC News' Hope Osemwenkhae and Daniel Manzo contributed to this report.

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