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About Utah: The ‘Professor of Powder’ and the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’

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SALT LAKE CITY — When Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, approached publishers about his book, “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth,” he was met with vacant stares.

It’s about what?!

Even when he finally found a publisher — Utah State University Press — they were only willing to agree to a modest first printing of a few hundred copies.

But Jim knew something they all didn’t:

Nobody likes to talk about the weather like skiers and snowboarders. And when the subject is powder snow, you can’t shut them up.

He knew this from firsthand experience. Whenever he’d post new forecast data and snow condition updates on his blog — Wasatch Weather Weenies — he’d get thousands of hits.

And when a storm was coming, he’d get double that.

That’s where the idea for his book came from. Why not feed the hungry, and educate them at the same time? He sat down at his keyboard and compiled everything he’s learned — which is a lot — about snow, especially Utah snow, with some history, predictions, avalanche information, a primer on how manmade snow is made, and his thoughts on global warming (it’s real) added in for good measure.

He dedicated his snow opus to “skiers, boarders, weather weenies, and anyone else who can’t sleep when the flakes start to fly.”

The first run came off the presses two Novembers ago. And each winter they’ve had to print more copies.

* * *

So is Utah’s snow really the greatest on Earth?

In a word: yes.

According to Jim, three things go into making great powder snow: 1) Frequent storms, 2) a soft underlying surface of snow, and 3) Right-side-up-snowfall, meaning lighter snow sits on top of heavier snow.

“The snow climate found in the Cottonwood Canyons of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains has these ingredients in spades,” he proclaims. Only a few other places on Earth are its equal: the Tetons, interior British Columbia, and Hokkaido Island in Japan.

The legendary powder has nothing to do, by the way, with salt. The notion that the secret to Utah’s powder is salinity picked up as storms pass over the Great Salt Lake is myth, not science. It’s also not true that Utah has the lightest snow. Mountains in Montana, Idaho and western Colorado actually have snow with lower water content — but aren’t as blessed with the full powder recipe as Utah.

Oh, and the lake effect we hear so much about? Barely a factor, Jim says, accounting for 5 percent or less of annual precipitation.

But, still, the license plates are correct.

As to the downside of great snow — avalanches — professor Steenburgh, who has personally skied virtually every drainage in the central Wasatch mountains (research, you know), has some heartening statistics as well as cautionary advice.

The heartening statistic: your odds of dying in an avalanche on open terrain within a ski area’s boundaries are 1 in 10 million.

The cautionary advice: Your odds of dying in an avalanche go up dramatically when you enter the backcountry after riding a ski lift. There have been 10 such deaths in Utah in the last 15 years. In other words, there is danger lurking beneath all that untouched powder beckoning just beyond the ropes.

Jim comes by his snow passion honestly. He’s paid his dues. He grew up in upstate New York, learned to ski on Eastern snow in the Adirondacks as a teenager and first visited Utah’s mountains with his dad in the winter of 1986 as a high school graduation present.

They slept in a Motel 6 and skied five resorts in a week, including an epic powder day at Alta.

As Jim went on to get his bachelor’s degree at Penn State and a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, he never forgot that Utah snow.

When the University of Utah offered him a teaching position after he got his doctorate from Washington in 1995, he said yes in world record time.

Twenty-one years later, he’s Utah’s resident snow guru, a man Backcountry Magazine calls the Professor of Powder. And his book? They call it “The greatest book (about snow) on Earth.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com