A sloppy winter storm blew into New Mexico on Wednesday afternoon, bringing heavy snow to the state’s eastern plains but was forecast to offer 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. In Albuquerque itself, low temperatures could cause icy road conditions for morning commuters, according to the weather service.
The National Weather Service recorded between half an inch to an inch of snowfall around Albuquerque Wednesday night, with an inch of wet snow reported at the Sunport and in the foothills, according to Annette Mokry, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office. The snowfall occurred between 6 and 8:30 p.m. in the metro area.
By midafternoon Wednesday, 2 to 4 inches of snow already had fallen in some mountain locations with more likely overnight. Areas on the eastern side of the mountains and northeast across the plains as far as Clayton could see 8 inches to a foot of snow, according to the weather service. Snow was sticking in Santa Fe, where city officials warned drivers to use care in their afternoon commutes.
Areas of the northern mountains from Chama to the west and north, which are critical for the region’s water supply, only were forecast to get 1 to 4 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, Jones said.
They could easily see the storm coming, and it was big. But the actual 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 1 to 2 inches of snow an hour.
“You can get 4 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.
Because the storms are big enough, the forecasters can 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 always are a dice roll because of the unpredictable nature of precisely where within the storm the bands will end up.