Does a strong El Niño bode well for Colorado ski resorts?

Below-average snowfall was expected at southern Colorado resorts, including Purgatory, this past winter. They were actually well above average. (Christian Tours, courtesy of Purgatory Resort)

A strong El Niño weather pattern has developed in the Pacific Ocean, which could be good news for skiers and snowboarders in the mountains of southern Colorado. But the National Weather Service’s 90-day forecast predicts above-average temperatures in Colorado’s high country through November, which doesn’t sound like good news at all.

Here’s the fact that may be most important for snowmobilers to keep in mind when wondering what kind of snow season is in store for Colorado resorts: Meteorologists always warn that the long-range forecast is often wrong.

Last year is a good example. Sam Colentine, a Colorado-based meteorologist for forecasting and reporting service OpenSnow, analyzed forecasts made a year ago recently with a post titled: “Has anyone accurately predicted the 2022-2023 winter season?”

“Predictions about every three to six months have been far from accurate,” Colentin said via email this week while traveling in Europe. “AccuWeather, OnTheSnow and NOAA called for below-average precipitation across California, southern Utah and southern Colorado. In fact, these areas received above-average record snowfall rates.”

In fact, eight California resorts set snowfall records, and most Colorado resorts reported above-average snowfall that prolonged the ski season by weeks.

“I don’t mean to say OpenSnow is ‘name it,’ but I wrote an article in August 2022 discussing the ‘Triple Dip La Niña’ phenomenon and how it was shaping up to be similar to the winter of 2010-2011, which was a great snow season across the West,” said Colentin. “. “It’s hard to say if a strong La Niña is directly related to an above-average snow season in 2022-23, but it was great to see a pre-season signal come close to fruition.”

El Niño and La Niña refer to surface water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affect storm tracks in the United States. El Niño, which has been in effect for the past three winters, usually produces winter storm tracks that flow mostly from the Pacific Northwest and favor northern resorts. When El Niño occurs, resorts in southern Colorado tend to do better because the storm’s general track favors the southwestern United States

As part of his preview of the upcoming winter, Colentin analyzed snowfall at Colorado resorts during the last seven El Niño winters. Here’s a list of above-average snowfall during those seven seasons at some Colorado resorts, according to his research:

  • Five of seven seasons above average: Wolf Creek, Winter Park
  • Four of seven above average: Vail, Crested Butte
  • Three of seven are above average: Steamboat, Copper Mountain
  • Two of seven: Aspen

“The only trend that really stood out from my research was the likelihood of an above-average start to the snow season in October and November, and a below-average extension through the months of December, January and February, followed by another above-average snow season.” “The average extent of snow is in March and April,” Colentin said. “This really caught my eye, as it’s an important trend during El Niño winters at every SNOTEL station across the state.”

SNOTEL is a network of automated stations across the Mountain West that collect weather data. There are more than 100 in Colorado.

Here are some numbers generated by Colentin in Colorado regarding the recent El Niño winter (2015-16):

  • Ship: 408 inches, 110% natural
  • Winter Park: 360 inches, 103%
  • Phil: 342 inches, 97%
  • Aspen Heights: 254 inches, 101%
  • Wolf Creek: 443 inches, 114%

Here’s Colentin’s advice for skiers and snowboarders this coming winter:

“In general, history tells us that Colorado tends to have around average snowfall during El Niño winters, with the potential for a stronger start and end to the season.

Having said all of this, for skiers and snowboarders, keep in mind that when it comes to finding the best conditions, it’s all about timing. For the best chance of enjoying the deepest powder, we recommend booking a trip seven to 10 days in advance.

“Sometimes, long-range forecasts can identify potential storms a week or two (or more) in advance, but more often than not, forecast confidence in the details of each storm only begins to increase when the system is about one week or closer away.”

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