What El Nino spells for snowfall
Okay, all you closet storm chasers, it’s official: El Niño’s back.
In official techo-speak parlance, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society has issued an El Niño Advisory for the Northern Hemisphere this winter, reporting that “sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies were near or greater than +2°C across the eastern half of the tropical Pacific, with large positive subsurface temperature anomalies also persisting in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific, with the largest departures exceeding 6°C.” Collectively, the report concludes, “these atmospheric and oceanic anomalies reflect a strong El Niño.”
What’s that spell for our snowpack in Steamboat? Don’t necessarily start stocking up the snow shovels.
“In speaking with meteorologists, we think that this winter will be an average snowfall season,” says Steamboat Ski Area spokesperson Loryn Kasten. Of course, after last year that’s welcome news, especially with Steamboat’s 10-year average hovering at 349 inches. “We tend to like neutral or weak El Niño/La Ninas versus strong ones,” she adds.
If this year’s El Niño turns out as big as 1997/’98’s, the strongest one on record and year Chris Farley spoofed El Niño on Saturday Night Live, the barometer dips; Steamboat only received 291” that season.
But don’t put all your predictions solely in the El Niño bassinet, says Denver’s KMGH meteorologist Matt Makens. “El Niño is part of a complex global weather pattern and can’t be singled out as the cause for a specific type of weather feature,” he says.
In his detailed analysis, during El Niño years the state as a whole has experienced above average precipitation in spring, summer and fall, with winter hovering near average. But there is a good chance of snorkel-day dumps. “Out of Denver’s 24 biggest single snowstorms, nine came in El Niño years,” he says. “With El Niño we’re more than two times as likely to have a bigger singular snowfall event, providing other mitigating factors do not overcome the event.”
Still, you’re almost as good noting the height of the local skunk cabbage. “There’s no apparent connection between the strength of El Niño and a wet winter or spring,” he adsmits. El Niño is a fantastic water-cooler topic, but it’s a very poor indicator, on the broad view, as to what a winter can bring.”
Past El Niño winters: 1987-88: 333.5”; 1997-98: 291”; 2002-03: 344”; 2009-10: 261”
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The 20th anniversary season of Opera Steamboat will kick off this month with a new series, the “Variations Piano Series,” bringing world-class pianists from across the country to Steamboat Springs.