Blizzard conditions set to bury California's Sierra Nevada with up to 12 feet of snow

A long line of trucks are parked off the west bound I-80 as drivers put chains on the wheels.
A long line of trucks is parked off westbound I-80 in Lake Tahoe, Calif., Thursday, as drivers put chains on the wheels in preparation for the snowstorm over the Sierra Nevada. (Andy Barron/AP)

Blizzard conditions descended on the mountains of California’s Sierra Nevada Thursday, with up to 12 feet of snow and roaring winds up to 100 miles per hour forecast for the region through Sunday.

The National Weather Service, which issued a rare blizzard warning for the Sierra Nevada, urged residents to “AVOID travel” at elevations above 2,000 feet in the state’s mountain areas.

“Life-threatening blizzard conditions” are expected from Friday afternoon through Saturday morning, according to forecasters, with wind gusts that could reach 110 mph.

The California Highway Patrol briefly closed Interstate 80, the main road that connects California and Nevada, near Donner Summit after a big rig truck overturned Thursday as the storm began to take shape.

‘Travel impossible’

The worst weather conditions are expected to arrive Thursday night, with heavy, persistent snow accompanied by strong winds. That mixture would result in whiteout conditions that will make “travel impossible,” the National Weather Service said, and bring “long-lasting disruptions to daily life” in the affected area.

As much as 12 feet of snow could fall near mountain peaks.

Avalanche warnings have been issued for the Lake Tahoe area and on Mammoth Mountain.

The National Weather Service in Reno, Nev., issued a stark warning: “Do not travel. If you must travel, have a winter survival kit with you. If you get stranded, stay in your vehicle.”

Blizzard conditions are expected over a 300-mile area in the eastern portion of the state, from north of Lake Tahoe to south of Yosemite National Park.

‘Top 5’ snow event

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told reporters in a webcast on Friday that this weekend’s storm “is likely to set some top-five daily or two-day snow accumulation” records.

“This will be another snowstorm, probably, for the record books in some places,” he said.

While the storm would immobilize higher-elevation areas of the Sierra Nevada, it would also help make up for a snowpack deficit at lower ones, Swain added.

“We rarely get air masses this cold that are also this moist and [are] associated with this much storm activity,” Swain said.

Snowfall rates could reach up to 5 inches per hour and last for several hours, Swain warned.

“There’s no way that any road-clearing crew can possibly clear that much snow that quickly. Especially if you have 60 mile per hour winds,” Swain said.

More snow for skiers, but patience will be required

The arrival of a significant snowfall to kick off March is good news for California’s ski resorts. But the intensity of the storm has caused most resorts to close until the blizzard conditions pass.

“We have made the decision to proactively CLOSE OPERATIONS for Friday, 3/1 to preserve the safety of our guests + employees during the most intense wave of the storm,” Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort said in a message posted to its website.

In a post on its Instagram page, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area wrote that “it’s going to DUMP 😂. It’s looking like we have a lot of digging to look forward to the next few days.”