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Storm building across New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A sloppy winter storm blew into New Mexico this afternoon, bringing heavy snow to the state’s eastern plains but little relief to the parched northern watersheds that provide New Mexico’s water supply.

The storm was expected to dump most of its precipitation east of the state’s central mountain chain, said Kerry Jones of the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office, with a wind pattern that could leave Albuquerque out of the heavy snowfall action.

The Weather Service issued travel warnings for Interstate 25 from the La Bajada-Santa Fe area to the Colorado border, and on Interstate 40 from Albuquerque to the Texas border. But in Albuquerque itself, the impacts on morning commutes tomorrow were expected to be minor, according to the Weather Service.

By mid-afternoon, two to four inches of snow had already fallen in some mountain locations, with more likely overnight, according to the Weather Service. Areas on the eastern side of the mountains and northeast across the plains as far as Clayton could see eight inches to a foot of snow, according to the Weather Service.

But areas of the northern mountains from Chama to the west and north, which are critical for the region’s water supply, were only forecast to get one to four inches of snow.

The scramble faced by meteorologists Wednesday in determining where the snow would hit hardest illustrates the difficulties in forecasting New Mexico snow, said Kerry Jones of the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

They could easily see the storm coming, and it was big. But the actually snow in a storm like this falls in narrow bands. “It almost looks like tiger stripes,” Jones explained.

The bands’ width varies, but they are typically anywhere from 30 to 50 miles wide. If you happen to live underneath a band, you can get one to two inches of snow an hour. “You can get four inches lickety split,” Jones said. If the band sits, or moves slowly, the snow can pile up in a hurry, while areas just outside the band get little snow.

One December snow dumped 11 inches of snow in Estancia, Jones recalled, while he had less than an inch at his house in east mountains, just 20 miles away. The same snow band reached across the mountains to Valencia County, leaving a good snowfall in its wake, while nearby Albuquerque got almost nothing.

Because the storms are big enough, the forecasters can see tell when there are good chances of snow falling somewhere along the state’s major interstate corridors. But the actual numbers at any given spot are always a dice roll because of the unpredictable nature of precisely where within the storm the bands will end up.