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Does El Niño Equal Deep Powder Skiing?

  
  
  

"Winter temperatures will be below normal, on average, with above-normal precipitation and much above normal snowfall."

In looking into the predictions for the winter of 2009-2010, my goal as a skier was simple: to determine if I needed a snorkel this winter or if I should just sharpen my edges and buy better sunglasses. 

I learned it was not so simple. When it comes to making long-term weather forecasts in North America, two cryptic Spanish words are always in the mix: El Niño and La Niña.  The two essentially describe the same oceanic phenomenon - the relative temperature of equatorial ocean currents in the Pacific. If certain currents are warmer than average, it is considered El Niño conditions, cooler is considered La Niña.  

El Niño typically grabs the most headlines as warm currents displace the typically cold water along the equatorial coast of South America. It happens every year to some degree, typically for a few weeks around Christmas, and the effects can be dramatic – like beaches in Peru littered with dead fish from the relatively less nutritious warm water invading the region  – and the name has become synonymous with unusual weather all over North America.

The American National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (sounds like a great place to work for people with accountability issues) released an advisory that reads, “El Niño is expected to strengthen and last through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2009-2010.” According to the National Weather Service, El Niño historically means:

  • Drier and warmer weather in eastern Canada and the central United States.
  • Below average precipitation in the Pacific Northwest and the northern Great Plains.  
  • Wet and cool weather in the southern United States.
  • What this means for powder skiing junkies everywhere is anybody’s guess.  

There appears to be little research done into the effect of El Niño on alpine climbing or skiing conditions, but there is plenty of anecdotal reference to support unusual weather events corresponding to El Niño:

  • Rock climbers rained out of the desert in southern California when the sandy desert floor turns to quicksand.  
  • Alpine climbers stuck in mountain cirques during massive early season dumps. 
  • Skiers locked in lodges below heavily loaded avalanche chutes in Utah while others are chattering on man-made snow in Colorado. 
  • During the last El Niño ski season, the winter of 2006/2007, 46 feet of snow fell on the slopes of Whistler-Blackcomb by the time the ski resort closed and stopped measuring – 16 feet more than average.  According to a report by snow gurus Chris Stethem and Associates, prepared for the International Snow Science Workshop, the winter was “a hundred-year winter on British Columbia’s North Coast.”  During the same season, the Columbia Mountains received record-breaking early-season snowfall, and heli-ski areas opened with epic mid-season powder conditions.  
  • In January of the 2007 El Niño season, CMH heli-skiers ripped down 10,000,000 more meters than they did during January of 2006.

There are no recorded consistencies, but the very mention of El Niño instills both fear and anticipation in outdoor athletes. 

The other icon of long rang weather prediction, the Old Farmer’s Almanac, is often ridiculed for being not based on pure science, but it has proven to be no less reliable when it comes to the impossible task of making accurate long-range weather predictions. Traditionally, the editors of the Almanac used tendencies of animals and plants that seemed to predict weather patterns with their behavior, but the modern version takes into account ocean currents like El Niño as well as solar activity like sunspots and solar wind, the effects of fires and volcanic eruptions, moisture content in the soil, water vapor in the atmosphere, and cloud cover among other things.  

The Almanac’s predictions may be little more reliable today than back in the day when they based predictions on how frantically the squirrels collected nuts and how many bears broke into cabins in the fall.  However, when I looked up the 2009-2010 forecast for Revelstoke, British Columbia, the world’s epicenter of powder skiing, I almost ordered a snorkel on the spot: 

“Winter temperatures will be below normal, on average, with above-normal precipitation and much above normal snowfall. The coldest temperatures will occur in mid- and late December, mid-January, and mid-February, with the heaviest snowfalls in mid- and late December and mid-January.”

So the Climate Prediction Center expects drier conditions for the Pacific Northwest, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac expects much above normal snowfall in BC.  Go figure.   Add global warming to the equation and we can be sure of some surprises this winter.  At the end of my research, I came to the same conclusion I seem to reach every year:  The only way I could be sure to get some deep powder this year was to go skiing – a lot.  
 

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