GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Beginning Jan. 4 and continuing until Jan. 8, a series of snow storms passed through northern Arizona producing as much as 18 inches of snow in Grand Canyon and 36 inches in Flagstaff according to the National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists in Bellemont.
The system produced about three to four inches of snow each day with Wednesday evening being the climax of the storm with as much as 12 inches of snow falling in Williams.
Snowy conditions prompted school closures in Williams, Parks, Flagstaff and Grand Canyon, with several schools canceling classes for almost the entire week.
In Williams, Bearizona and APS closed for several days, and federal employees at Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest were sent home early. Some Parks residents experienced power outages.
Despite the daily storms, the only major road closures were a portion of I-17 south of Flagstaff, I-40 east of Ash Fork and Lake Mary Road in Flagstaff. Grand Canyon National Park remained open but with temporary closures at Desert View and Hermit's Rest. Some park trails and parking lots were also temporarily closed until snow could be removed.
Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Zeke Zesiger said officers responded to eight to 12 slide offs or minor collisions each day during the storm event, which was more than the normal amount of calls but not excessive. He said public awareness prior to the storm kept accidents to a minimum and officers responded to far less calls than the previous November storm.
"ADOT did a wonderful job on the roads and people really slowed down," Zesiger said. "I-40 overall was very good other than a closure near Ash Fork Thursday night."
Zesiger said the closures were needed so ADOT snowplows could clear the roads and spread de-icer.
"The roads got so bad that traffic started backing up," Zesiger said. "ADOT made the decision to shut them down to allow us to clear traffic out and then they ran the plows through and cleared the roads."
The series of intense storms left the area Jan. 10 and a weaker system moved in on Sunday. Forecasters are calling for clear skies with temps in the 30s to 40s during the day and in the low teens at night.
El Nino ramps up, set to be one of top strongest winters on record
According to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this year's El Niño is on pace to become one of the strongest such events on record, as measured by the unusually mild ocean temperatures in a huge portion of the Pacific Ocean. This year's El Niño is expected to be similar to the winters of 1997-1998 and 2009-2010.
El Niño is the warming of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that occurs every two to seven years where the ocean warms for six to 18 months.
"El Niño doesn't mean more intense storms generally," said NWS meteorologist Tony Merriman. "We're talking more frequent winter weather. So we might deal with a four to five inch individual event and then another four to five inches falls 18 hours later. It doesn't have time to clear out so you get these waves that are more frequent and your total accumulation for the season gets higher."
For the Southwest, El Niño results in below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation. The Jan. 9 seasonal outlook lists a 40-50 percent chance of above-normal precipitation for northern Arizona this winter.
According to Merriman, Flagstaff has received a little over 58 inches of snow this season and is close to surpassing last year's total of 62.9 inches.
"We've looked at patterns since 1950 and there have been six strong El Niño Events," Merriman said. "For now this is one of the top two strongest El Niños on record."
The Center predicts that the drought in central and western Arizona will likely be removed following this El Niño season.