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Counting snowflakes—all of them: Talking with Dr. Tom Painter about the Airborne Snow Observatory

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017 by Geoff, Executive Director
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Just how much water is contained in the Sierra Nevada snowpack? NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with the California Department of Water Resources and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, have developed the high-tech Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) to answer that question with greater precision and clarity than ever before.

Using a plane with an imaging spectrometer and a precise LIDAR measurement system, ASO scientists can calculate how much water is contained in every square meter of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Photo courtesy of Tom Painter, NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Flying out of nearby Mammoth Lakes, a plane equipped with an imaging spectrometer and an incredibly precise LIDAR laser measurement system has been gathering vast quantities of data that allow scientists to calculate how much water is contained in every square meter of snowpack in the high Sierra. Knowing how much water is stored in the snowpack and waiting to flow down Rush Creek, for example, is incredibly valuable. The details of how ASO works are fascinating and the big-picture implications for Mono Lake and all of California water management are exciting. I talked with ASO Principal Investigator Dr. Tom Painter in May during a break in his schedule between flights, project development, and a roster of presentations worldwide. (more…)

Record winter snowpack melt underway

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017 by Geoff, Executive Director
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Mono Lake, and all of us here at the Mono Lake Committee, have just been through the biggest winter on record. It is an abrupt and welcome end to drought conditions (though not to all the effects of the drought), made all the more enjoyable by the way it crept up unannounced and surprised us with its intensity.

So much snow arrived in the Mono Basin this winter that even ephemeral streams far east of the Sierra flowed with water this spring. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Stories abound of Highway 395 being closed for days, snow blanketing every facet of the Sierra Nevada crest, and backcountry snowfields that measure taller than any building in Mono County. Speculation about an opening date for Tioga Pass—certain to be among the latest ever—is a popular springtime guessing game in town.

So what does it all mean for Mono Lake, its tributary streams, and the operation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct? Here’s the exciting outlook:

Mono Lake on the rise

With a deep snowpack fueling runoff that is forecast at 206% of average, Mono Lake is expected to rise (more…)

Tioga Pass from the air

Monday, May 8th, 2017 by Elin, Communications Coordinator
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Caltrans just sent out a video of a flyover of Tioga Pass, filmed last Monday, May 1. The video shows the road from low in Lee Vining Canyon to the eastern gate to Yosemite National Park; there is no sound in the video.

There is no estimated opening date for Tioga Pass, and this video helps to show why. We knew there was a lot of snow up there—it’s exciting to see just how much!

Fence post: An update from Mono Lake’s landbridge

Friday, April 21st, 2017 by Elin, Communications Coordinator
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The temporary electrified fence protecting Mono Lake’s nesting California Gulls has been up and running for about three weeks now. After a long and snowy winter the gulls’ calls signal spring’s arrival, and it’s gratifying to know that as they build nests and lay eggs out on the islands, they are protected from coyote predation.

Gull researcher Kristie Nelson works on one of the fence sections that extends into Mono Lake. Photo by Geoff McQuilkin.

The fence stretches for about one mile across the landbridge, and is made up of five sections that overlap—an electrified long middle section, two shorter electrified sections at the ends near the water’s edge, and two passive sections at (more…)

Removing snow and rumors along the Tioga Pass Road

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017 by Bartshé, Education Director
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Tioga Pass Road at 8,000' on April 4, 2017.

Snow is minimal below 8,000 feet on the east side of  Highway 120, but snow depth increases exponentially above 8,500 feet. Photo by Bartshé Miller.

As everyone in California knows, it’s been a remarkable year for precipitation. At the highest elevations above Mono Lake in the vicinity of Tioga Pass, we may be facing a snowpack over 200% of average. April 1 snow surveys revealed nearby sites at all-time record snow depth and water content, while other sites, including Tioga Pass itself, fell just short of past record levels. Snow depth in the region likely moved upward with recent April storms, cold temperatures, and generally unsettled spring weather. (more…)

Charting weather extremes and understanding climate change impacts

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 by Bartshé, Education Director
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A wet winter has brought needed relief to a drought-stricken Mono Lake. However, a glimpse at Lee Vining weather data reveals that predictions about climate change in California and the Sierra Nevada are becoming real.

January 2017 set a record for wettest month in Lee Vining’s weather data history: 11.23 inches of precipitation. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Warming temperatures, along with more extreme and less-frequent precipitation, are reflected in our local weather. The record-setting drought of the last five years still casts a shadow across the Mono Basin. Multi-year impacts to the watershed and ecosystem have accumulated due to record high temperatures, remarkably low runoff, and wildfires. As climate forces further change, monitoring, assessment, and adaptation will be critical to the future restoration and protection of Mono Lake. (more…)

Spring is springing at Mono Lake

Sunday, March 19th, 2017 by Gabrielle, Project Specialist
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After what feels like an endless winter, signs of spring are starting to pop up all over the Mono Basin. Daytime highs in the mid to high 60’s mean that most of the snow around Mono Lake and in town has melted away. Morning commutes are feeling more and more like the crisp summer mornings I came to love while leading canoe tours and Nora, our Lead Naturalist Guide, has led the way, declaring it officially sandal weather.

We’re not the only ones enjoying the warmer weather; the songs of Red-winged Blackbirds, Cassin’s Finches, and Spotted Towhees can be heard through town. And a quick trip to the lake reveals that California Gulls have already begun to arrive for their summer nesting season.

Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Nora Livingston.

Although we look forward to the warm and busy summer months ahead, we are excited to see that Mother Nature still has snow to share with Mono Lake. The forecast calls for a storm starting Tuesday and our hopes are high for a few more like it!

As of March 15 the lake is at 6378.2 feet above sea level and with all the snow we got this winter it will only continue to rise. It will be a great season and we cannot wait to share it with you.

Mono Basin March 2017 snowpack breaks March and April records

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 by Greg, Information & Restoration Specialist
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After the wettest February since 1986 at some survey sites, Mono Basin snowpack is more than double the March 1st average!

Snow water equivalent (SWE) ranges between 205% and 244% of average at the five snow survey sites in the Mono Basin (called snow courses). Gem Pass, Ellery Lake, and Saddlebag Lake have the highest March SWE on record. At the lowest-elevation snow survey site—Gem Lake at 9,150 feet above sea level—SWE was about 10 inches shy of the 1969 record, but it had reached the 1983 amount. The Tioga Pass snow course was 5 inches shy of the 1983 record. In the map below showing the snow courses, portions of the Lee Vining Creek (top) and Rush Creek (bottom) watersheds are outlined.

At Ellery Lake and Saddlebag Lake, in the Lee Vining Creek headwaters, March 1st SWE was already higher than the record April 1st SWE set in 1983. Map by Robbie DiPaolo.

At Ellery Lake and Saddlebag Lake, in the Lee Vining Creek headwaters, March 1st SWE was already higher than the record April 1st SWE set in 1983! Map by Robbie DiPaolo.

(more…)

Mono Basin snowpack is 200% of average for February 1

Sunday, February 5th, 2017 by Greg, Information & Restoration Specialist
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February 1 snow surveys conducted over the past week revealed an approximately 200% of average snow water content in the Mono Basin. This puts the April 1 average at just over 120%.

Outlook for April 1, 2017 peak snowpack at the Mono Basin's five snow courses based on February 1 snow surveys and historic data.

The current outlook for April 1, 2017 peak snowpack at the Mono Basin’s five snow courses based on February 1 snow surveys and historic data. Graph by Greg Reis.

It is still early in the season, but even with a dry February and March, it will be an above-average year, and with an average end to the season it will be a wet year. With a wet February and March, new April 1 records could be set!

We still need to build a fence to protect Mono Lake’s California Gulls

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017 by Elin, Communications Coordinator
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Those who have been watching Mono Lake drop during the last five years of drought know that we here at the Mono Lake Committee have been preparing to protect nesting California Gulls from opportunistic coyotes with a temporary electric fence across the emerging landbridge.

California Gull parents and chicks on a nesting island in Mono Lake last summer. Photo by Sara Matthews.

And then this January happened! We got record amounts of snow and rain brought by atmospheric rivers—enough to see a visible rise in the level of Mono Lake. We started to hear the perceptive question: “Does this mean you don’t have to build the fence?”

We’re still going to build the fence. There are two main reasons…. (more…)

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