The year could end on an oddly snowy note in Las Vegas, as a potent winter storm has southern Nevada gambling on the potential for up to 3 inches of snow accumulation through Thursday morning.
The New Year’s Eve storm will drop south through the western U.S. over the next few days, bringing with it a blast of cold air, snow, and strong wind. A winter storm watch is in effect for much of the Southwest U.S. this week through Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The National Weather Service cautions that snowfall in the Las Vegas Valley could be most significant on Wednesday afternoon and evening.
While forecast models are wavering on whether Vegas will see measurable snow, the Weather Service is calling for a trace to 3 inches of accumulation, with the higher totals in locations under the heaviest snow bands in the higher elevations. Las Vegas sits at an elevation of around 2,100 feet — just high enough to see some flakes fly.
Roads across southern Nevada and southeast California could become treacherous as the storm takes hold. Mountain Pass near Halloran Summit on Interstate 15 in Southern California, and Interstate 40 between Barstow and Ludlow, Calif., are expected to become particularly dangerous for travelers during peak snowfall.
While the snowfall might not be noteworthy across most of the western U.S., any accumulation — no matter how small — is plenty to bring transportation in Las Vegas to a halt.
On Dec. 17, 2008, 3.6 inches of snow fell at McCarran International Airport, causing flight delays, widespread car accidents, and district-wide school closings. The 2008 storm set the December snowfall record for Vegas. Should this week’s storm drops a measurable amount of snow on McCarran International, it will be just the sixth time the location will have accumulated snow in the month of December.
According to records kept by weather historian Christopher C. Burt at Weather Underground, the most snow Las Vegas has ever seen was 12 inches in 1909.
However, a more comparable Vegas snow storm is probably the New Year’s Day storm of 1974, when 4.4 inches of snow was measured at McCarran International. Visibility dropped to less than a quarter of a mile for about an hour around the airport. Photos taken during the 1974 storm show snow covering the ground (and the palms).
On Sunday, the National Weather Service in Las Vegas issued a strongly-worded statement warning of “unusual and potentially historic weather” this week. The office was particularly concerned about the tourist population and the surprise this snow storm might generate. Unfortunately, Las Vegas is ill-equipped to handle any amount of snow on the best of days, let alone when the city is filled with unprepared New Year’s tourists.
Despite the strong language in their statements, the Las Vegas NWS office is still hedging its bets. On Monday, it was educating Twitter followers on the definition of a “bust” forecast — something with which D.C. meteorologists and residents alike are all too familiar.