Return to Weather and Climate page

Weather and Climate

Historical Storms
of Mount Shasta

Return to Mount Shasta home page

Talking about the weather is one of humankind's favorite topics of conversation. During times of severe weather, communication about the storm becomes essential. Storms can wreak havoc in our daily lives, leading to loss of lives, homes, and property. When communication, transportation routes, or power supplies are cut off, the impact of a storm becomes more intense. In this day and age we have media access to storms and storm damage from around the world. But to really get a feel for a weather event from the past we need to talk to the participants. If you have the chance, ask others about their weather experiences. If the event happened so long ago that no one is left alive to talk to, then the next best thing is to look in old newspapers. You can be sure that the weather will be discussed. A big storm tends to dominate the news.

Record-breaking snowstorm of North America

The weather event that Mount Shasta is probably most famous for, besides the snowstorm John Muir experienced on April 30, 1875, is the snowstorm of February 13-19, 1959. This storm was credited with producing the most snow in a single storm in North America until the late 1990s when an eastern state beat the record (de Blij and Muller). If you were to ask an oldtimer about the most impressive storm they remember, however, it is invariably a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's snowstorm or flood from the late 1930s, mid 50s, or the mid- to late 1960s. They all say that we do not have storms "like we used to have."

Snow-covered street in Weed, California, 1937
Snow-covered street in Weed, California, 1937
Image courtesy of Weed Historic Lumbertown Museum

If we turn to the weekly newspapers of the time and check out what was happening the week before the record-breaking storm, we find that the new college in Weed was named "College of the Siskiyous" and that the Mount Shasta Ski Bowl had 25 inches of powder on a 122 inch base. The weather for that week, at Mount Shasta City, was as follows:

Date High Low Precipitation Snowfall
4 52 36 - -
5 54 31 - -
6 51 29 - -
7 43 19 trace trace
8 39 20 .04 .4
9 30 24 .37 6.2
10 35 28 .60 8.5
Table showing official weather report for Mount Shasta City from February 4-10, 1959.
Mount Shasta Herald, February 12, 1959

The next week's newspaper, which came out on the last day of the storm, showed that a big storm had, indeed, passed through. The headline for that day was "Heavy Storm Closes Everitt Road Friday." The article stated that the 5-day storm began on Friday (February 13). The paper noted that the first two days of the storm brought 33 inches of snow to Mount Shasta City while the following days "lead-heavy snow and slush" fell. The 20-24 foot drifts on Everitt road could only be cleared by a rotary snow plow. By February 18th, only 12 inches of snow remained on the ground in Mount Shasta City, 25 inches in McCloud, 9 inches in Dunsmuir, and only patches of snow were left on the ground in Weed. The paper further commented that high winds during the height of the storm in Weed (40-60 mph) caused drifts several feet high. On the last day of the storm (February 19) there were 219 inches of snow at Mount Shasta Ski Bowl (as compared to 147 inches the previous week). The article concluded with the comment that another storm was expected from the Pacific that night (February 19). Mount Shasta Ski Bowl received another 20 inches from that storm, as shown in the weather records for February 1959 at the Mount Shasta Ski Bowl.

Date High Low Precipitation Snowfall
11 39 22 .01 0.1
12 41 10 - -
13 32 28 .42 5.2
14 33 29 2.59 27.9
15 36 32 1.30 8.5
16 46 32 1.61 trace
17 38 32 1.81 8.0
Table showing official weather report for Mount Shasta City from February 11-17, 1959.
Mount Shasta Herald, February 19, 1959

Turning to the original weather records for Mount Shasta City in 1959 it is interesting to note the comments for January 1959:

This has been the wettest January since 1916, and the 5th wettest since records were begun in 1888. The month started with a seasonal deficiency of 6.18 inches and closed with an excess of 4.25 inches. The first heavy snow storm of the winter began on the afternoon of the 4th, and winter sports in the area have been in full swing since the middle of the month. At the close of the month the snow pack at the ski bowl, elevation 7850 feet, mean sea level, was 130 inches.
The February 1959 summary is as follows:
This has been the second consecutive month precipitation has been well above normal. At the close of the month seasonal precipitation was 9.35 inches above normal. Snowfall during the month was the heaviest since 1938 and exceeded the 16 year mean total by some 58 inches. Winter sports in the area were in full operation at the close of the month. A snow pack of 180 inches was measured at the Mt. Shasta Ski Bowl, elevation 7853 feet, on the last day of the month.
The March 1959 summary includes what the weather was like immediately following the big storm, and indicates how the weather impacts the local economy:
Rainfall between the 22nd of February and the 20th of March was extremely light and spotty over the Mt. Shasta Area. Some sprinkler irrigation had begun just prior to the rains during the latter part of the month. The snow pack on Mt. Shasta at the 8000 foot level at the close of the month was 103 inches. This is about 28 inches below the average and 81 inches below last years measurement of 184 inches. Warm dry weather during the month permitted limited logging operations to begin by mid month, which is nearly 30 days earlier than normal.

Probably the main reason that many people do not seem to remember this record-breaking storm on Mount Shasta was that the heavy snowfall was mainly confined to the upper elevations. As the storm progressed it became wetter, resulting in less snowfall at the lower elevations and a more compact base at the Ski Bowl. There is no indication in the original weather records or in the newspapers that there was a public awareness that this was a continental weather record for the most snow received in a single storm.

Heavy Flooding

The main type of weather event that folks remember around here is regional flooding. When a storm affects a broader area there is more news coverage, people talk about the weather more than usual and for a longer time, and the impact on the economy is greater. Flooding events tend to be more widespread than snowstorms, which are more likely to occur at the higher elevations. The winters of 1955/56, 1964/65, and 1996/97 brought widespread flooding throughout northern California and southern Oregon.

The flood of 1955/56 was called the Big Flood, and was considered by the California Disaster Office (1956) to be:

...the greatest disaster of its kind which ever occurred in California. It is necessary to go back nearly a century to find a record of any comparable deluge in the state's history. That was the great winter flood of 1861-62, which left an impression on local traditions, but only a fragmentary record of fact...

The record flooding of 1955/56 was broken before ten years had passed. The flood of 1964/65 was "the most devastating inundation recorded in the history of California" resulting in over $13 million dollars of damage in Siskiyou County alone (United States Army Corps of Engineers, 1965, 1966). The Mount Shasta Herald (December 24, 1964) stated that "Witnesses who saw the [Sacramento] river both in the historic December, 1955 floods and Tuesday's rampage said this was the worst of the two."

The New Year's Flood of 1997 was categorized as a 50-year event by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Of the 58 counties in California, 43 were declared disaster areas (Lott, et. al., 1997).

Rainbow over Mount Shasta © 2001 Jane English
Rainbow over Mount Shasta
© 2001 Jane English

The sequence of events for these winter floods was similar in nature and will be described in general with specific examples from each of the three big floods.

All the major flooding events in the Mount Shasta region have been preceded by heavier-than-normal rainfall during November and/or December, so that the ground is saturated prior to the arrival of the flood-producing storm. November rains in northern California and southern Oregon in 1964 were three times above normal (United States Army Corps of Engineers, 1965). According to the original Mount Shasta City weather records of 1964 it was December that produced the greatest precipitation:

This has been the wettest December since 1955, and snowfall was the heaviest since 1954. Measureable precipitation occurred on 23 days. The heavy rains that began on the 20th, produced the worse flooding on available records, with Dunsmuir, 9 miles to the South, the imediate [sic] areas hardest hit. Preliminary surveys indicate flood damage far exceeds the December, 1955 floods, considered to be the greatest in Northern California history. Heavy damage to bridges, with some completely washed away has been the costly result in the immediate area.

Another common factor of the major flooding events is that temperatures were higher than normal during the storm resulting in rain rather than snow. This generally held true at the higher elevations as well, which resulted in snowmelt in addition to rainfall adding to the rivers' water supply. These higher temperatures are a direct result of the storm's origin. During these big rainstorms, the Pacific High pressure system tended to break down resulting in warm, moist air contributing to a storm track that reached from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest. These large storms also tended to be accompanied by high wind speeds.

The December 24, 1964 issue of the Mount Shasta Herald provides a good comparison between the December 1955 and 1964 storms:

Weatherman Wade English compared the storm to that of December, 1955.

Both hit their peak on the 21st and 22nd of December. In 1955 the 24 hour high total of precipitation was 4.3 inches in Mount Shasta [City] while this week it was 4.8 inches for 24 hours. The storm totals for the area from Friday morning to Wednesday morning were 15.71 inches at Vollmers, 12.96" at McCloud, 15.17" at Dunsmuir, 9.88" at Weed, 23.28" at Castle Crags State Park, and 10.9" at Mount Shasta [City].

Temperatures both years were warmer than normal, in the upper 40's and low 50's. It rained at the Ski Bowl Tuesday, reducing the snow pack from 10 feet to 8 feet.

English estimated that the rain cleared the snow below 6,500 feet, and the rain washing this pack of snow from Vollmer's north was the cause of the heavy flooding.

English said there is another storm off the Northern California coast, but the rain is expected to be light today, and mostly cloudy.

Summertime's influence on mudflows and wildfires

Since most of our precipitation falls during the winter months, this is when most of the spectacular storms occur. However, summertime conditions can culminate in two types of natural disasters: mudflows and wildfires. Mudflows generally occur in late summer after several months of warm weather and before the cold nights of fall. Late summertime thunderstorms or early extratropical cyclones that bring heavy rains are usually needed to trigger the mudflows, which are caused by a combination of the storm and melting glaciers. Summertime thunderstorms or human triggers, such as campfires or the use of machinery, usually start forest fires during the later summer months when the vegetation is dry. However, widespread forest fires typically occur when the region has been experiencing drought conditions.

Lightning over Mount Shasta © 2001 Jane English
Lightning over Mount Shasta
© 2001 Jane English

Conclusion

Mount Shasta had the longest-running snowfall record for a single storm in the United States for nearly forty years. Winter sports enthusiasts, among others, keep a close eye on the weather, always hoping for new storms to replenish the snowpack at the higher elevations. In warmer, wetter winters, the weather becomes more of a concern to local residents due to the possibility of flooding. Warm weather at the end of summer, combined with a heavy rainstorm, can result in spectacular, albeit damaging, mudflows. Drought years bring an increased fear of fire danger and increased measures to prevent fires from spreading. Summertime thunderstorms, although potential fire dangers, are fun to watch develop and even more thrilling when the lightning begins. Almost everyone who lives within site of Shasta watch it daily for signs of a change in the weather or to enjoy the interesting cloud formations that develop in its presence.

 

Geology ~ Environment ~ Native Americans ~ Folklore ~ History ~ Art ~ Literature
Recreation ~ Maps ~ Mount Shasta Collection ~ Bibliography ~ Lesson Plans ~ About Project