Mary’s Peak Snow — a local fable

A local fable, and a story from 2008:

One of the interesting “weather fables” for the Willamette Valley involves snow atop Mary’s Peak, west of Corvallis (the highest point in the Coast Range). I first heard about this from Weldon Greig of KGAL Radio, who related the following story:

An OSU professor told his spring term students that if snow were visible on top of Mary’s Peak on June 1, every student in the class would get an “A.” According to legend, this only happened once in the 30 years that the professor taught. Weldon and I often chatted about this in the spring, but every year the visible snow was gone much earlier than June 1.

Then came 1999. It was a year much like 2008, for the same reason: La Nina. The cooler-than-average tropical Pacific water temperatures that represent La Nina usually bring cool, wet, snowy conditions to the Northwest. The winter of 1998-99 saw a very strong La Nina, and it yielded one of the snowiest winters ever. That winter the Mt. Baker ski area set a new world record for most snowfall in a season: a total of 1,140 inches. Throughout the Columbia Basin the snow was very deep. In fact, the Columbia River was near flood stage for almost a month as the snow melted in late spring.

The Coast Range had abundant snow as well, and lots of it remained in April and May.

In mid-May, John Fischer of KEZI-TV in Eugene came to my office to interview me. We talked about the deep snowpack, and I told him the story about Mary’s Peak snow. He asked on camera, “do you think we’ll see that this year?” My answer: “No, this is so rare I don’t think we’ll see it happen, even this year.”

How wrong I was. Snow was still visible on June 15, but then things warmed up and the snow disappeared. But it had persisted well beyond the first of June.

Thus, when we experienced a similar wet, cool, snowy winter this year (2008), and another La Nina spring, I couldn’t help but think about the Mary’s Peak snow fable. Again and again this spring we would get a day or two of warm weather, but then conditions would revert back to cool and wet. It got very frustrating for many of you (I know because you told me!).

In retrospect, it’s fortunate that we did have a slow warmup. There was so much snow in the mountains, especially the mid-elevations, that a rapid warming would have led to significant flooding. A fellow from the National Guard called me several months ago and said “we’ve been called on to protect property from flooding. If you see even a hint of extended warm weather, or heavy rain, please call me.” I never needed to.

But day by day I watched Mary’s Peak. June 1 came and went; the snow was still there. A week later, it was still visible. And a week after that.

Friday, June 20, the direct path of the sun’s rays reached the Tropic of Cancer, making that the longest day of the year and officially beginning summer – the day is known as the Summer Solstice.

I went downtown and from a vantage point atop one of Corvallis’ highest buildings looked toward Mary’s Peak. I saw snow. Quite a bit of it. We did it again, perhaps later than ever before.

It may be awhile before we see such late snow again, but if predictions of an extended cool period are correct (see, for example, http://www.iceagenow.com), who knows?

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3 Responses to Mary’s Peak Snow — a local fable

  1. RobWaltemate says:

    What about the solar minimum of 2009, which was a deep solar minimum like the one in 1954. I was in Corvallis majoring in Physics in the early 90’s and we would always go and play in the snow up on Mary’s Peak. Once pulled out some studens off the outside edge of the road with my beatup old chevy. I don’t know which was a brighter white, the snow or their eyes. They drove really slow down the hill after that, LOL.

  2. Mike D. says:

    Back in ’75 my neighbor Earl advised me not to plant the garden until the snow melts off Mary’s Peak. If there’s still snow, it’s too early. I have watched the snow on Mary’s Peak ever since, and Earl’s bit of folk wisdom has proved very reliable. The soil is too wet and too cold for seeds or starts until that darn snow melts away.

    Last year was the latest snow melt and latest soil warming around here in my recollection. Worst gardening year, too, with Spring a month late and Fall a month early. Short, cold summers are not to my liking. Warmer is better.

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