Review of the 2008/9 Winter

Nothing is better than a bit of snow to get journalists and the ski bizz breaking out their dictionaries of superlatives. Already 2008/9 has been dubbed “The Winter without end” with the “best snow for 30 years”. We’ve taken a look at the facts to see whether the headlines match up to reality.

Statistically speaking the period from the 1st December 2008 to 1st March 2009 is the seventh coldest winter over the last 30 years but it is nothing like 1998. That winter was colder by over a degree on average compared to this year. Snowfall over the winter was close to normal in the Northern Alps except close to the border with Italy. However temperatures and snowfall only paint part of the picture.

The actual snow cover above 800 meters was very good as the winter avoided extended periods of rain at high altitude. There was a lot of wind, especially from the east (Lombard) and south which left many peaks bare of snow.

To put things into some perspective Meteo France says “If this winter had occurred 30 years ago no-one would have noticed. It is just that we have had two very mild winters, 2006-2007 was the warmest on record, and that has given people the impression of a hard winter”. While it has been cold in France and some other parts of Europe, January was amongst the warmest since 1880 for the Northern Hemisphere as whole. “One shouldn’t make global extrapolations based on local climate”, Meteo France warns.

We’ve analyzed the data from four weather stations. Bourg St Maurice and Chambery in the Northern Alps, Tarbes in the Pyrenees and St Auban in the Southern Alps. Overall winter in France was 1.2C colder than normal but while the north of France froze, there were ten days with snow cover in Paris, the difference in temperatures in the Alps was less marked. Chambery was -0.55C colder than average and Bourg St Maurice, in the heart of the Tarentaise, just -0.35C colder. December and January were both cold but February was closer to normal.

Tarbes was 0.6C colder than average with a cold January and February. In December, although maximum temperatures were down, perhaps due to cloud cover, minima were around normal. St Auban was also -0.6C colder than normal with a very cold December and January with February close to average.

The first major warm spell occurred at the end of February. On the 28th the zero degree isotherm climbed to 3000 meters over all mountain ranges and the sun beat down. This was enough to purge many avalanche paths except cold north faces. At the start of March there was a return to winter with fresh snow particularly in the Western Pyrenees.

Looking at snow, winter got underway early, with the first skiable snow falling on the 30th of October but continuous snow cover in the mountains only started from mid November. Some areas such as the Ardeche saw their earliest snow on record. On the 14th of December Bonnval sur Arc in the Maurienne had nearly 150cm of snow in 24 hours. On the 23rd of January the wind was gusting at over 160km/h at Meribel and 50cm was dumped on Val-d’Isère and along the border areas.

February experienced a prolonged cold period from the 7th to 25th of February but with a four week period with little snow. Overall Arêches-Beaufort had 100 days of snow cover compared to a 20 year average of 65 days and total snowfall of 298cm. the coldest temperature was -12°C on the 15th of February, far from the record of -22.1° recorded in 1987.

Bessans in the Maurienne, which also benefited from the 14th of December dump say 487cm over the winter smashing the previous record of 360cm. It was a nippy – 25.5° on the 16th February. The record is -31°C set in 1987.

The Southern Alps had some of the best snow fall for 40 years despite a warm February. Cover in December was 2 to 3 times more than average for the period. However snow quality was mixed. Reports from ski tourers said that the surface had been heavily affected by strong southerly and easterly winds. The quantity of snow was not without problems. Avalanches blocked many access roads in the run up to Christmas and buildings had to be evacuated. In early February another large dump blocked holiday makers in the resorts of Auron and Isola 2000 for several days. The resorts of Les Abriès and nearby Ristolas were both claiming over 4 meters snow depth on upper slopes early in January. However the ski area’s lift infrastructure had suffered damage from avalanches. Marseilles also saw snow in the first week of January with falls of 20-50cm. The first snow since 1987. A ski tourer actually managed to ski the 563 meter Mont Puget in the Calanques. More seriously the conditions on Mont Ventoux were generally excellent throughout the winter.

Corsica had the best snowfall since the start of records 30 years ago with well above average depths at 1500m. There was over 400cm of cover higher in the mountains. A boost to the island’s tiny ski resorts and a delight for backcountry enthusiasts.

After a couple of lean years the Pyrenees had exceptional snow cover with over 3 meters depth in the mountains in February in the Hautes-Pyrenees at 2500 meters. The area was hit by a hurricane over the 24th January with guts to 190km/h in the Western Pyrenees.

Snowfall was good in the Massif Central. 150% compared to the 30 year average. The Vosges and Jura also saw a return to real winters with ski touring possible from the trailheads without any approach walks.

To sum up it really was an exceptional winter for the mountains south and east of Grenoble, the Island of Corsica, the Pyrenees and much of the cental upland area of France. As followers of our forum will have noticed Eric Lodi has posted excellent reports from the Massif Central throught the winter. The picture for the Northern Alps, with the exception of the border area with Italy, is not so clear cut. A good winter but maybe not a vintage. Conditions in the Jura and in particular the Vosges have also been extremely good. The conditions are reflected in the avalanche statistics with deaths slightly up on the average established since 2000 but without a return to the catastrophic 2005-6. This is largely down to condtions with good early season snowfall and a stable conditions during the February school holidays.

Figures from Meteo France. 30 year average taken from 1971 to 2000.

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 29 March, 2009 at 10:34 PM

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