Photo by Jeff Cricco
We have been warned: El Niño is back and the legendary weather pattern is poised to be the biggest of its kind. That’s a fact. El Niño—that periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of South and North America—has begun to brew. The last time there was an El Niño this strong, was monster year of 1997–1998, when the snowpack across the state hit at record levels. And this baby, which has already been nicknamed the “Godzilla” El Niño, might be even bigger.
Or it might not.
Confused? You’re not the only one. “Here is how I would describe this upcoming snow season,” says Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist at OpenSnow.com. “It’s like we have a powerhouse football team loaded with players and poised for success. It should succeed, but a few missed opportunities could sink it. Everything is aligned for a good year, but you never know until we are in it.”
Just the Facts, Ma’am
The West is in desperate need of snow. California is mired in one of the worst droughts in history. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in September noted that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the lowest in 500-years. In fact, when researchers looked at monitoring stations across the range they found that it was at a frightening five percent of average.
The Pacific Northwest burned this summer due to an unnatural absence of snow. “The Pacific Northwest actually had a pretty good year from a precipitation standpoint,” says Gratz. “The problem is that there was little snow due to the warmer temperatures.”
When winter builds up a decent snowpack at higher altitudes it allows all that moisture to release slowly over the hotter months, keeping everything saturated, and considerably lowering the risk.
Alaska received significantly less snow than average last year. Idaho, Nevada and Arizona are all in some form of drought. Utah is seeing a shrinking snowpack, but most ski areas are still reported decent conditions last season.
Then there is Colorado. After a run of several mediocre winters coupled with dry summers, the winter of 2013–2014 showed up, bringing an abundance of powder. Fresh on its heels came another healthy winter last year, plus abundant rainfall all spring. Suddenly, all seems well.
“Volatility is the name of the game these days,” says Andy Wirth, president and chief executive officer of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. “All of the up-to-date weather modeling points to more and more extreme seasons. Gone are the days of consistent snow levels for resorts. Some seasons will be huge and some thin.”
So what does that type of volatility mean when it comes to sorting through the hype surrounding the coming season? First, it’s important to understand how this system works.
“El Niño is when warmer water from the Pacific region around the Indian Ocean, Indonesia and Australia heads east towards the cooler waters off the coast of South America. It’s perfectly normal. This in turn causes a displacement of the jet stream that encircles the globe,” says Phil Klotzbach, research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.
“It’s the wind that transports moisture into the United States. In a strong year, it sets up a powerful subtropical jet stream that funnels enhanced moisture to the southern part of the U.S.”
While El Niño simply means more rain in most places, it’s a godsend in the Sierra. “The Tahoe resorts could be looking at 120-150% of average this season if the snow line holds,” says Klotzbach. “The problem is that the tropical moisture also brings warmer weather.” The dilemma in determining who will get graced with powder lies a perfect combination of location and altitude. The further south, the better chance of being in the path of storms, and the higher up, the better chance that precipitation will fall as snow rather than rain. Tahoe is a tricky one to predict. In the past, powerful El Niño’s have hit it hard. Mammoth Mountain, further south, could have a memorable year.
But when Mother Nature blesses one area she tends to ignore another. And chances are high that Washington, Alaska, British Columbia, Montana and Idaho could be looking at another crappy winter. In both of the past strong El Niño years (1982–83 and 1997–98) there has been below average snowfall.
This does not mean there will be no snow, however. “Fun fact: Throughout most of the Western U.S. over half of the seasonal snowfall comes from just 10 percent of the storms,” says Gratz. A warmer-than-normal jet stream over the upper part of the country might not bring any big storms during the season. Snow will fall but not in big dumps.
The takeaway? If you were thinking about heading south to ski, this is the year you may be in luck. The data all points to Arizona and New Mexico resorts having a banner year in 2015-16.
Colorado and Utah, however are tough to accurately predict. The states sit right between the two jet streams. They are not too far north to suffer from the warm air, but they are not far enough south to line up for the brunt of the precipitation. Brian Head Resort and Eagle Head in southern Utah should see some serious snowfall this season. Alta and Snowbird should be good, if not great. And Park City will also be a good bet.
And Colorado? After the bounty of the past two winters it would be safe to say that Mile High residents are getting a little spoiled. Even though I-70 traffic continues to cause problems, that ski gridlock is not enough to keep the denizens of the Front Range away. Will El Niño add to the congestion headed west? It could if history repeats itself. The odds are in favor of some major dumps heading to Colorado’s big resorts. But nothing is certain.
“I would not be surprised if the season started off with a bang, followed by a lull, but then we had a huge spring where the snow keeps piling up long after the resorts close,” says Gratz.
El Niño could be backcountry skiers’ best friend with runs being put up deep into the summer.
Besides all of that powder, El Niño’s increased precipitation bring some other big positives. If you are a surfer, this is the year to head towards California or Baja. One certainty is that there will be strong coastalcostal storms all season ushering in big waves. But perhaps the best news of all is that the Sierra will be getting some much-needed rainfall that will help lower the fire danger. But, with rain the possibilities of mudslides, and flooding will most certainly rise as California’s water tables and aquifers struggle to refill.
Canary in the Coal Mine
As we look towards the upcoming El Niño not knowing what exactly is in store, there is one element that stands out for certain. Climate change is a carbuncle on the skin of all outdoor lovers. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you are on, the facts are simple. Winters are changing. Droughts and other extreme events are increasing across the West.
“People say that the ski areas are the canary in the coal mines, and that they are dead. Doomed to irrelevance. I think not,” says Wirth. “They are alive and well. We have refined our offerings and adapted. There will always be peaks to ski and ride, the real question is what do we do after this season?”
Therin lies the rub: El Niño’s big storms could be a distraction when it comes to deeper problems facing not just winter resorts but the planet.
“The explosion of fires across the entire Western U.S. seems to have opened people’s eyes the last few years. When you see areas you love struggling, it motivates you to get involved,” says Chris Steinkamp, Executive Director of Protect Our Winters (POW). “We need to show politicians the economic power winter sports have to effect change.”
By working to unite all of the stakeholders in the winter sports industry POW is creating a lobby strong enough to turn politicians heads in D.C. When you are able to harness the power of a $62-billion-dollar business like the ski industry you are able to get people who care about the bottom line to notice. Resorts like Aspen, Squaw Valley, and Park City are leading the way. By working with their local communities, they have been able to create new programs that help mitgate the energy consumption and pollution causing climate change.
Enjoy the snow this season, but be sure to do what you can to ensure it will continue to dump, even if it’s hard to predict just where.
Hudson Lindenberger is the author of the Elevation Outdoors.com Liquid Gear column, a frequent contributor to Men’s Journal, and a skier always seeking more snow.