Weather forecasters stumped on outlook for Steamboat’s upcoming winter season
Complicating any forecasts this winter is the absence of El Nino, La Nina
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When asked to give a snow forecast for the upcoming winter season, meteorologist Joel Gratz replied simply, “I have no clue.”
As the founder of OpenSnow, a forecasting company specializing in snow updates, Gratz avoids making long-range weather predictions, particularly for snowfall, which can depend on localized, more spontaneous weather events.
Further complicating any forecasts this winter is the absence of strong climate phenomena, namely El Nino or La Nina, which would otherwise bring less variable weather patterns.
Recent long-range forecasts from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest most of the country, including Steamboat Springs, is within an “equal chances” zone, meaning the odds of receiving average, above-average or below-average precipitation is about the same. In other words, anything is possible.
Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist with the Weather Service, said parts of Northwest Colorado could receive above-average precipitation. He pointed to moisture from “atmospheric rivers,” which produce significant levels of rain and snow, particularly in western states like Colorado.
Phillips made this prediction with a similar caveat as Gratz.
“I feel like I’m a farmer’s almanac forecasting this far out,” Phillips said.
Meteorologist Sam Collentine has six tips for accessing the best conditions this winter season:
1) Live in a location that’s close to mountains with the deepest snow.
2) If you can’t live close to deep powder, wait 7 to 10 days before your trip to book it.
3) Even if you wait 7 to 10 days before booking your trip, consider only booking to a general area.
4) If you have to book a trip far in advance, pick locations that statistics show have the deepest powder.
5) If you can’t execute any of the above strategies, change your expectations for your ski trip.
6) Upgrade to All-Access for 10-day forecasts to help you find the pow.
The two meteorologists pointed to last year as an example of the inaccuracy of long-range forecasts.
Based on signs of an El Nino winter pattern last ski season, many experts predicted a drier winter for much of the U.S., including Colorado, according to Gratz.
But, as a recent article in OpenSnow pointed out, and as many locals saw firsthand, those forecasts were as wrong as the powder was deep.
The Yampa Valley recorded the deepest snowpack in the past five years during the 2018-19 season, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s snow telemetry sites in the mountains above Steamboat.
“Last year was just something very anomalous. (Snowfall) was good everywhere,” Phillips said.
Much of that had to do with storm systems that hit Steamboat within 10 days of forming, Gratz explained.
“The ski conditions ebb and flow with weekly storms that come in,” Gratz said. “There is no way to forecast that.”
Current conditions suggest neither El Nino nor La Nina will impact this winter’s weather patterns, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This neutral condition, colloquially known as “La Nada,” means larger weather patterns will not have as strong an effect on Steamboat’s snowfall as in previous years.
Similar to last ski season, local conditions will have more of an impact on snow totals. One such storm in January of this year dumped 13.5 inches in a single day at Steamboat Resort, the deepest snowpack in a 24-hour period since 2017.
To Gratz, the unpredictability of mountain weather means he tries to avoid booking ski trips months in advance. Certain resorts may get pummeled with a snow storm while others stay dry.
With multi-resort pass options, such as the Ikon and Epic passes, skiers and riders now have more flexibility during the winter season. If one resort does not have powder, they can book a trip to one that does.
Maren Franciosi, digital communications manager for Steamboat Resort, said many are optimistic and excited to hit the slopes after such a good season last winter.
The resort also is opening several days earlier than normal, on Saturday, Nov. 23.
An avid skier himself, Gratz is simply waiting to see what this season has in store, which, as a meteorologist, can be difficult.
“As a skier, I’ve learned not to get my hopes up or let them crash this early,” he said.
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