New Years winter storm

A band of clouds envelops the San Francisco Peaks.

A very cold storm system moved across the southwestern states on the last day of 2018 bringing snow to both the usual locations but in the lower elevations and the desert as well.

I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.

Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.
Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.

I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.

Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.
Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.

As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.

Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.

The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.

Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.

Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!

And, finally, we have some weather

It has been a very dry autumn and early winter around these parts—but that finally changed as a winter storm moved across the area yesterday and today. On Tuesday afternoon clouds began to increase across the area and there was a cap cloud draped across the San Francisco Peaks.

Clouds cover the San Francisco Peaks as a winter storm approaches Arizona.
Clouds cover the San Francisco Peaks as a winter storm approaches Arizona.

Most, but not all, of Arizona received precipitation including Flagstaff. We have been without any significant precipitation since September 27 when 0.07″ of rain fell. Since then, we’ve had 0.01″ on November 17 and a Trace on December 21. That’s it. It’s been the driest period on record and the second latest first snowfall of the season. And it’s been warm.

Water vapor satellite image of the winter storm approaching Arizona.
Water vapor satellite image of the winter storm approaching Arizona.

Rain began to fall around 7:30 P.M. Tuesday evening then switched to snow around 10:15 P.M. as the cold front moved across the area. Prior to frontal passage we had several rounds of thunderstorms. At least one of these thunderstorms exhibited extreme right-mover characteristics as well as some weak rotation suggesting it may have been a supercell.  With this winter storm Flagstaff received ~5″ of snow and 1.19″ of total water.

Location of lightning strikes as the cold front advanced across Arizona.
Location of lightning strikes as the cold front advanced across Arizona.

Although it was still mostly cloudy this morning, there was a gap in the clouds along the eastern horizon allowing sunshine to briefly illuminate the peaks shortly after sunrise.

San Francisco Peaks wrapped in early morning clouds.
San Francisco Peaks wrapped in early morning clouds.
Mormon Mountain and Mormon Lake at sunrise.
Mormon Mountain and Mormon Lake at sunrise.

The San Francisco Peaks are almost completely wrapped in clouds with only the summits visible. A few minutes later, the sun had risen high enough that it was above the clear gap and everything turned gray again.

This will be a short-lived episode as the forecast indicates a quick return to warm and dry conditions across the southwest.