The Steamboat Surprise

Editor’s Note: This is a weekly column written by Meteorologist Joel Gratz that will take you “behind the scenes” of the typical weather forecast. Joel is the founder of, where you can sign up for his email alerts.

Boulder, CO – The worst thing for a skier is to just miss a powder day. This happened to me in November of 2005 when Steamboat recorded more than three feet of snow in two days while just down the road in Breckenridge they barely picked up little more than a few inches.nOf course I was in Breckenridge that day and had no idea – even as a meteorologist who was closely watching the weather – that Steamboat could receive so much snow from the storm. When my friend called from Steamboat and said she was skiing in chest-deep snow, I knew I needed to figure out the mystery of the “Steamboat Surprise”.

I’m here to say that the “Steamboat Surprise” is still somewhat of a mystery, but perhaps that keeps it fun. The last storm that hit Colorado this past Sunday and Monday was forecast by most models to drop between six and eight inches of snow on Steamboat, as seen by the yellow colors below. In actuality, over 20 inches fell and yet another “Steamboat Surprise” was in effect.

Click image to enlarge

There are a few ingredients that contribute to the surprise, which include a wind direction from the west-northwest or northwest, plentiful mountaintop moisture, and a temperature around 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit. When these factors come together, the “Steamboat Surprise” is possible. But it’s more hit-and-miss than that, and it’s still hard to predict.

As another friend of mine who is a meteorologist said, “I was tired of getting the forecast wrong and missing the powder, so I just moved to Steamboat and now I don’t miss a day.”

Sounds like a good option to me!

Joel first fell in love with weather and skiing at age four, and this passion for snow has not faded with age. After earning his Meteorology degree from Penn State in 2003 and a Masters from the University of Colorado in 2006, Joel started Colorado Powder Forecast out of Boulder, Colo., to help fellow snow lovers with accurate and entertaining weather forecasts.

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