What Does La Nina Mean to Skiers?
Australia just had its wettest September on record. Winter wheat prices are up 26% in the US due to a dry winter forecast for the Midwest. Argentina’s corn and soybean crops are suffering from drought. Rubber and rice prices in Southeast Asia are rising due to flood damage to crops and mines in recent months. What on earth, you may ask, does this have to do with heliskiing?
Two words: La Niña
This phenomenon of cooler than average waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean has far reaching impacts, and each of the above stories mentions La Niña as a factor. On the bright side, for those of us looking to ski or snowboard in the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada, the impacts might be just what the doctor ordered.
The media is abuzz with stories about what this might mean. Statistically, La Niña conditions produce above average precipitation and below average temperatures for the Pacific Northwest, with warmer and drier conditions in the Central Rockies and the Great Plains.
With ski towns from Crested Butte to Revelstoke humming with rumors of this winter being “The Big One” I had to track down a couple of snowfall experts to see what all this might mean for skiers.
First, I asked Karl Klassen of the Canadian Avalanche Centre what he has observed during La Niña winters. The CAC does not keep these kinds of records, but he shared this perspective: “It probably depends on the strength of the La Niña (which is shaping up to be the strongest in 50 years) and how and where the resultant systemic pattern establishes itself.”
To translate this into brah speak: “If you’re in the sweet spot, you’re gonna get puked on.”
Next, I talked to Uwe Gramann, a mountain weather guru based in British Columbia. Uwe worked for Environment Canada for 8 years before starting Mountain Weather Services, a consulting company that provides focused weather information to ski companies, snow professionals, and avalanche control clients.
While Uwe sounded confident about the statistical aspect of long-term weather predictions, he was quick to point out that the local reality can be quite different. “To put it in perspective, if you go buy an old car, statistically you can say it will be less reliable, but if you drive out of the car dealer and a hubcap falls off, a lot of other factors could have caused the problem.”
Uwe proceeded to point out another underlying problem with long-term weather predictions: Everything is based on a seasonal average, so a couple of singular events can tip the scales. “All it takes, to make it statistically a colder than average winter, is a cold front or two to tip the average.”
“From a statistical perspective,” explains Uwe, “We (southern British Columbia) are expecting a colder winter with higher precipitation.” He referred me to this map on the Environment Canada website showing a happy blob of higher than average precipitation right over the snowsport epicentre of the Columbia Mountains.
Uwe also pointed out that, earlier in the season, the long-term weather models (using different data than the La Niña/El Niño predictors) were suggesting a warmer and drier winter in southern British Columbia. However, in recent runs, the weather models have switched, and are now in agreement with the La Niña historical predictor of higher precipitation and lower temperatures.
Finally, making everything as clear as crud, last night I had dinner with a ski patroller, who recalled a presentation by a weather specialist who had looked into snowfall records from a specific ski area in Colorado and compared them to the La Niña/El Niño phenomena. As she explained it, about half of the big winters were La Niña, and about half of the big winters were El Niño. Also, about half of the weak winters were La Niña and about half of the weak winters were El Niño. Go figure.
So nobody can be sure what to expect, but statistically, if you don't plan a ski trip, it will never happen. So all things considered, including the overall trend of climate change causing unpredictable and severe weather, including record-breaking snowfalls, here's my advice: carve out some time to go heliskiing - if this is the epic winter of all time in British Columbia, you want to be part of it.
Choker conditions at CMH Monashees photo by Topher Donahue.