Will It Dump This Winter?

OpenSnow Meteorologist Alan Smith digs into the details and forecasts a good chance of a big season.

The 2022–23 Winter season is just around the corner, and skiers and riders are already curious about how the upcoming season will shape up in terms of snowfall. Winter outlooks contain an inherent degree of uncertainty since so many factors in the atmosphere are not predictable months or even weeks in advance, and climate change is also adding to the complexity of seasonal outlooks. However, there are a few variables—including ENSO (the El Niño Southern Oscillation)—that can provide some clues.

The Departure from average precipitation december through March during the La NiÑa/Westerly QBO analog winters of 2008–09, 2010–11, 2016–17, and 2020–21. Green areas show wetter (which usually means snowier) weather.

A La Niña pattern was present during the previous two winters (2020–21 and 2021–22). This occurs when sea surface temperatures are colder than average across the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Confidence is growing that a third consecutive La Niña will occur this winter—something that meteorologists have termed a “Triple Dip La Niña.” Back-to-back La Niña winters are fairly common, but three consecutive La Niñas are rare. 

A La Niña pattern has persisted into the summer of 2022, and long-range models have been projecting a higher than average chance of a La Niña continuing into the winter of 2022–23, before possibly weakening in the spring of 2023.

If another La Niña were to verify this winter, it would only be the third time since 1950 that three consecutive La Niñas occurred. Every La Niña winter is different, but, in general, they favor above-average snowfall across the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies, and below-average snowfall across the Southwest. Correlations are weak for Colorado, Utah, and Tahoe.

Sometimes, La Niña winters can be snowier than average across nearly the entire Western United States, with recent examples including 2007–08, 2010–11, and to some extent 2016–17. However, the past two winters (which were both La Niñas) were underwhelming for snowfall across most of the West. Will the (likely) La Niña winter of 2022–23 finally deliver the goods? It’s too early to say, but there are at least a few reasons for optimism.

This NOAA Forecast (ABOVE) shows the probability of a La NiÑa, El NiÑo, and Neutral phase for each three-month period between the summer of 2022 and the spring of 2023. Blue bars show the percent chance of a La NiÑa, and the “DJF” label is for “December-January-February”.

Since 1980, when clusters of two or more La Niña winters have occurred, at least one of the winters ended up being a “big winter” across a large portion of the West. While there is no scientific reasoning for this, if history is any indication, then the odds of 2022–23 being a good winter are decent. 

Another long-range variable that can influence winter patterns is the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation (QBO), which describes trade wind patterns in the tropics. A westerly phase of the QBO is expected to occur this winter. This is a phase that has shown some correlation with above-average winter precipitation across the Western U.S.

Although the sample size is admittedly small, winters that feature a La Niña combined with a westerly phase of the QBO appear to have a better chance of being wetter (and thus, snowier) than average across a large portion of the Western U.S. 

The image below shows precipitation anomalies during these “analog” years.

Keep in mind that no matter how deep or light a winter is overall, when it comes to skiing, it’s all about timing. Booking a trip seven to 10 days in advance and for a general area that looks stormy will increase your chances of scoring deep powder days.

Download the free OpenSnow app (opensnow.com/app) to help plan your upcoming winter season. Resources include 10-day snow forecasts, daily analysis from local forecasters, high-resolution weather maps, and custom snow alerts so that you never miss another powder day.
Alan Smith, meteorologist for OpenSnow

Courtesy OpenSnow

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