What’s happening in the clouds to make Steamboat’s Champagne Powder?

A fence lined with old skis at the corner of Third and Pine streets in downtown Steamboat Springs. The Steamboat Springs area has benefited from heavy snow in the month of December.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The snow that fell over Steamboat Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 14, is the Champagne Powder that Steamboat Resort has trademarked.

A barrage of adjectives can describe it: airy, fluffy, floaty and dry. The name Champagne Powder comes from the 1950s, when a local rancher named Joe McElroy was skiing where the resort eventually would be and remarked that the snow “tickled his nose like Champagne,” per Steamboat Resort.

“This morning I realized it was the perfect Champagne Powder snow day when I didn’t need a shovel,” said Loryn Duke, director of communications for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. “I used a broom … I don’t know many ski resorts where you can remove snow with a broom.”

But what actually happened up in the clouds to drop this snow that many claim to be so special?

Gannet Hallar, director of Storm Peak Laboratory at the top of Mount Werner and a professor with the University of Utah, said it starts with the snowflakes.

“If you have the perfect snowflake, which we tend to call a stellar dendrite, it has a lot of air and not so much water in its formation,” Hallar explained. “What allows for those types of snowflakes to form is both the temperature and the amount of water in the air as the snowflake forms within the cloud itself.”

Snow often starts as dust, which then forms ice. As the ice builds outward, its shape is based on the amount of water and the temperature. Hallar said warmer temperatures allow for higher water content, while colder temperatures often bring lighter, drier snow.

This graphic created by Kenneth G. Libbrecht, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, shows the relationship between moisture and temperature when snowflakes are formed.
Kenneth G. Libbrecht/California Institute of Technology

Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said this relationship can be seen by looking at data from Storm Peak Lab from this week. At about 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12, as the storm front moved in, the temperature started dropping.

“When the front came through, it started relatively warm and the crystals were not the dendrites, so they kind of pack together and you had relatively dense snow to start the storm out,” said Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website “By 6 a.m. on (Tuesday, Dec. 13) the temperature had fallen below zero and bottomed out at minus 3, so the snow got progressively lighter.”

Weissbluth said those low temperatures, combined with the right amount of moisture, put Steamboat in the center of the dendritic growth zone, which allowed the flakes to quickly pile up a fresh blanket of low density snow.

Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said the red line on this graph shows the temperature at Storm Peak Lab at the top of Mt. Werner dropped as the snow started falling.

The snow’s density is lower because the bigger the dendrites, the looser the snow packs and the more air is mixed in. While snow elsewhere can have a 15% water content, the powder in Steamboat tends to be closer to 7%, Hallar said.

Another key factor in Steamboat’s snow is the geographic location, right next to a large wall that is the Park Mountains. Hallar said this process of wringing moisture out of the clouds as they rise is called orographic lift, and puts Steamboat in prime powder position.

“What’s great about Steamboat and allows for this very strong orthographic lift is that the Park Range runs north to south, so it provides a distinct barrier,” Hallar said. “When the clouds hit that barrier, then they lift upwards rapidly, allowing for a strong cloud formations, which can help promote snow formation.”

Weissbluth said he expected the snow to continue falling on Thursday, Dec. 15, potentially dropping at inch an hour like it was Wednesday morning.

“I feel like this week has been Steamboat’s Christmas present,” Weissbluth said. “We’ve just got outstanding quality snow before the tourists arrive.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to fix a spelling error.

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