El Niño a winter wild card | SteamboatToday.com

El Niño a winter wild card

Pacific phenomenon a prime factor in season's climate forecast

Snow covers Storm Peak at an elevation of 10,372 feet Thursday at Steamboat Ski Area. Despite this modest coverage, one local expert estimates the snow on Buffalo Pass to be as deep as 30 inches.

— The wild card in Steamboat Springs’ long-range winter climate outlook is El Niño.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a winter forecast Thursday that rates the chances of average, below average and above average precipitation in the Inter-Mountain West through February as a toss-up.

Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said the warm water phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean known as El Niño will be a driving factor in winter weather December through February in the United States.

“We expect El Niño to strengthen and persist through the winter months, providing clues as to what the weather will be like during the period,” Halpert said. “Warmer ocean water in the equatorial Pacific shifts the patterns of tropical rainfall that in turn change the strength and position of the jet stream and storms over the Pacific Ocean and the U.S.”

Steamboat powderhounds know Mount Werner is prone to getting day after day of snow when the jet stream settles over the Yampa Valley on a northwest flow.

One might not guess it to look at the modest snow cover on Storm Peak, but the snow depth is building just north on Buffalo Pass to as deep as 30 inches, in the estimation of one local expert.

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Chris Diamond, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. president, observed during a public speaking engagement this fall that the last El Niño year resulted in more than 400 inches of snow. That year, 2005-06, weather patterns dumped 432 inches of snow at the midway point on Mount Werner.

El Niño could mean rain at the bottom of the mountain in November, Diamond said at the talk.

Steamboat is on the southern edge of a large bulge in the map that calls for increased chances of warmer-than-average winter weather.

Steamboat experienced back-to-back mild Novembers in 2007 and 2008, only to see record and near-record snowfalls as both winter seasons evolved. Just the same, ski area managers will hope for overnight temperatures that dip into the teens during the next six weeks to provide optimal snowmaking conditions.

An NOAA climate map released Thursday included Northwest Colorado as part of a wide swath of the country where there are equal chances for average, below and above average precipitation this winter. The same map indicates elevated chances of a drier-than-average winter in Washington state and Montana with increased chances of wetter-than-average conditions along the coast of California.

The National Weather Service was calling for a 30 percent chance of rain showers in Steamboat from Wednesday night into Thursday, and the city received one of its wettest storms since spring.

Steamboat weather observer Art Judson said the city received as much as six-tenths of an inch of rain overnight. He measured 0.52 inches at his rain gauge between downtown and the mountain. Another observed on the Hilltop Connector had 0.55 inches in his rain gauge, and a climate station north of the high school came in at 0.61 inches.

“To put it in perspective,” Judson said, “the total for all of September was just 0.60 of an inch. The 0.52 this morning is the greatest 24-hour total since May 3.”

Judson said snow depth measured 22 inches Wednesday afternoon at his weather station on Buffalo Pass.

Assuming that it snowed above 10,000 feet on Buffalo Pass while it rained in the valley, and also assuming average moisture density of snow per inch, Judson surmised that another 9 inches of snow had fallen at his high-elevation weather station.

The rest of the winter appears to be anybody’s guess.