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It's all about your elevation: Idaho snow levels, explained (and a cheat sheet)

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You've probably heard Roland Steadham, Nate Larsen or me mention snow levels when talking we're talking about upcoming storm systems in reference to which areas will see snow, and which areas will see rain.

But what does that number (usually spoken about in terms of thousands of feet of elevation) really mean to you? I've found this is one of the tougher concepts to explain on air, because it can be confusing if you're not familiar with elevations of specific mountainous areas, or even the town you live in.

Essentially, the snow level (or snow line) is the altitude at which snow will fall versus rain. For example, if the snow level is around 5,000 ft. (and know that it's impossible to nail this down to the exact altitude), then most areas above around 5,000 ft. should see precipitation fall as snow instead of rain (meaning accumulation is also possible).

An example:

Let's say, for example, that we have a storm moving in over the weekend. Ahead of this storm, it's been quite warm (Thanksgiving week would be a good example of something like this), so for fun, we'll say snow levels are forecast to start around 9,000 ft on Friday. Then, a cold front will slice through on Saturday morning, dropping the snow line to around, say, 4,500 ft for Saturday afternoon and the rest of the weekend.

Basically, this means that on Friday, as the storm tracks in, if our mountains get hit with wet weather, mountain peaks at or above (give or take) 9,000 ft. will see snow, while anywhere lower in elevation will see rain. By Saturday, when the snow level drops to 4,500 ft., all areas above 4,500 ft. will see snow, and only spots below that number will see rain.

Making the concept (and snow) stick:

Maybe that makes more sense now, or did all along. But how do you put those numbers into perspective? Here's a "cheat sheet" I put together outlining the elevations for some common spots we talk about in the forecast (ski areas, mountain valleys, towns in the Treasure Valley).

Ski area elevations:

Most of our local ski areas (Brundage, Tamarack, Soldier, Bogus and Sun Valley) have bases that sit between 5,000 ft. and 5,800 ft. In order for it to snow at the base of these mountains safely, we want to see snow levels between 4,500 and 5,500 ft., depending on the location.

  • Bald Mountain: Base: 5,750 ft. | Summit: 9,150 ft.
  • Brundage Mountain: Base: 5,480 ft. | Summit: 7,640 ft.
  • Bogus Basin: Base: 5,790 ft. | Summit: 7,582 ft.
  • Tamarack Resort: Base: 4,900 ft. | Summit: 7,660 ft.
  • Soldier Mountain: Base: 5,750 ft. | Summit: 7,180 ft.

Other bench marks to remember: (approx)

  • Sun Valley/Ketchum: 5,800 ft.
  • McCall: 5,000 ft.
  • Idaho City: 3,900 ft.
  • Table Rock: 3,600 ft.
  • Mountain Home: 3,100 ft.
  • Boise: 2,700 ft.
  • Meridian: 2,600 ft.
  • Emmett: 2,600 ft.
  • Eagle: 2,560 ft.
  • Nampa: 2,500 ft.
  • Caldwell: 2,375 ft.

The big picture:

-When we talk about snow levels around 7,500 ft., know that this means most of the ski areas will see snow at the summit.

-Snow levels between 5,000-5,500 ft. (and lower) should mean snow for the base of our ski areas (usually).

-Snow levels between 2,000-3,000 ft. will signal snow (or at least the possibility of flakes) on the valley floor.

-Snow levels between 3,500-5,000 ft. will usually hint that our foothills could get a dusting (or accumulation, depending on the storm system)!

Happy December!

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