Why Elevation Matters | Santa Fe Weather

Santa Fe cloudsWe recently had snowshoeing guests who were very dismayed to arrive and find almost no snow in town. In fact, daytime highs were in the high 50’s, we were all in shirt sleeves, and it seemed impossible to them that we would be able to have a snowshoe outing.

New Mexico is an interesting place for weather forecasters. Yes, we’re subject to the same jet stream movements and larger weather patterns as everyone else in the country (think of those maps with the pressure fronts and big “H” and “L” symbols), but there is a saying that “the mountains make the weather”.

When you fly in to Albuquerque, you land at around 5000ft elevation above sea level. You travel north and up to arrive in Santa Fe at 7000 feet. Town is nestled into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains and local peaks average around 12,000ft elevation.

Winter sky at Ghost Ranch

Winter sky at Ghost Ranch

Living at high elevation is a bit of a challenge. If you cook, it means that recipes have to be adjusted or cake batter will rise out of the pan then collapse. There is less atmosphere over our heads–less atmospheric “weight”–so water boils at a lower temperature and rice or pasta needs longer cooking times. Because the air is less dense, it doesn’t retain heat which means that we experience bigger temperature swings between sunny and shaded places, or between night and day. Daytime high temperatures are on average 30 degrees F above nighttime lows.

Microclimates abound. As a gardener, you learn that what will thrive in the cool shade of the north side of a house or wall will bake and perish on the sunny, south-facing side. The old saying that “moss grows on the north side of a tree” actually works quite well out here. Two sides of a small gully in the woods may have different plants than just a few feet away because of the slight differences in sun exposure and moisture.

As you travel ever uphill into the mountains, there is less and less atmosphere. Overall temperatures are much cooler. But thin, cold air is less able to hold water vapor, so clouds form and we get mountain precipitation even if skies elsewhere are blue.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains trees

Frosted Mountain Trees

In late Fall or early Spring when a bigger front is predicted, the weather guys say the “snow line” will be at so-many feet. It means that at elevations higher than that line, temperatures will be lower and precipitation will come as snow; below the line it is likely to be rain.

When you live with our high-elevation weather for a long time, it becomes a complete fabric with the landscape, where the landscape influences the weather and the weather helps make the ecology and landscape, rather than disconnected fragments of fact. As hikers, we know that particular routes are best at certain times of the year because of the weather, that certain trails hold snow later in Spring, or stay warmer for hiking in late Fall or Winter. Visiting different places each season is part of what we love about the area!

And our snowshoers? They were amazed and delighted by the two-plus feet of snow on their mountain trail.

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About Outspire

The natural outdoor world is exciting, restorative, and infinitely fascinating. More people should spend time there!
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2 Responses to Why Elevation Matters | Santa Fe Weather

  1. santafetraveler says:

    I remember going hiking up near the top of Hyde Park Rd. well into spring. Got into the woods and went up to my knees in snow. Hike over!

    • outspire says:

      Just exactly! We start getting calls about trips into the mountainous Pecos Wilderness in April, mostly Spring Breakers looking for somewhere south (read “warm”) to go hiking or camping. What a surprise for them when we start talking about how deep the snow will be!

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