Tag Archives: El Nino

What Kind of Winter Are We Going to Have?

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Someone asked me last weekend if I knew what kind of weather we were going to have this winter at Crystal. It’s timely because I was just thinking about how nifty it would be if I could predict the weather. Well, let’s be real here. I want to do more than predict weather. Any weather forecaster could do that. I want to control the weather.

While I haven’t yet mastered weather control, I have found some historical data that might be interesting to you skiers and riders obsessing/fretting/anxious about the season to come.

NOAA is predicting a very strong El Niño for the 2015-16 winter season. It’s easy to worry over this, especially since El Niño’s tend to mean dryer and warmer conditions in the PNW. But we’ve only been through two very strong El Niños in the past hundred years or so and those years weren’t so bad at Crystal.

In 1982-83 was a very strong El Niño event. Crystal reported about average snowfall that season. This was back when the weather plot was behind the Alpine Inn, where the tree canopy may have interfered. We had an active avalanche cycle in 82-83, with a slide that started in Kempers breaking timber all the way down to Highway 410.

1997-98 might be a little easier for locals to remember at Crystal. It was the daddy of all El Niños (which, by the way is spanish for “the niño”). It was the year of Chris Farley’s infamous skit on SNL.

During that season, Crystal ended up with about average snowfall. According to Tony Crocker at bestsnow.net, we were actually ahead. He has a pretty cool month-by-month analysis that you might want to check out. In a nutshell, we started strong at Crystal, had some spring-like conditions in mid-March, then ended in April with enough snow to get to about average depths.

El Niños tend to be pretty unpredictable. There are other factors besides ENSO at play as well. The folks at Atmospheric and Environmental Research consider the snowpack in Siberia in October as a good indication of the severity of winter in North America.

And then there’s the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which you may have heard is predicting a severe winter in many parts of N. America. The OFA uses a secret formula for long-term weather prediction that they keep hidden in a black box. So you know it’s got to be accurate.

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders. Which is nice.

One last consideration is the winter in Chile. There’s a “totally scientific” belief at Crystal that the Chilean winters are a prediction of the upcoming winter in the Cascades. The Andes are buried in snow right now. So we’ve got that going for us, too.

So what kind of winter are we going to have at Crystal? One thing I know for sure is that we will have weather, and plenty of it.

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When Winter Storms are Like an Abusive Relationship

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This winter, the weather in the Cascades is like an abusive relationship. You keep thinking that the next storm will be better, that it will bring more snow, that the rain is a thing of the past, that things will change.

There have been moments of greatness this season. In between wet storms, we’ve enjoyed some beautiful days. While the valleys have been blanketed with cold clouds, Crystal Mountain has enjoyed warm sun. On these days, all the rain is forgiven. You remind yourself that today is a new day. You tell yourself that every winter season has its ups and downs. You convince yourself that even Japan has bad years (and you try to swallow that large seed of doubt deep into the sugary snow lining your own psyche.) Because even abusive seasons have their good days.

Mt. Rainier view from Crystal Mountain January 16th

Mt. Rainier view from Crystal Mountain January 16th

Yesterday was a legitimate powder day. The snow was a bit dense, but it was plentiful up high, and it finally covered over rocks on the summit ridge above Green Valley. Skiers and riders forgot for a few hours about the season’s stinginess. They ignored the curses that started in late November and have echoed through the Cascades. Down with Pineapples!! Damn El Niño!! Things were turning around, and yesterday was perfect. All was forgiven.

But, when you’re involved with an abusive winter season, things change fast. One minute you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in the gutter. This morning its a mix of rain and snow at the base of Crystal. You call it “chunky rain,” or perhaps “liquid snow” might be a better description. While it falls from the sky looking very much like snow, it falls hard and wet. And it hurts. The upper mountain is currently on wind hold.

Its supposed to warm up today and the snow level will continue to creep toward the summit and beyond. You’ve seen this pattern before–a glorious foot of snow followed by a mean inch of rain and then ending in an apologetic few inches of snow. Like a bouquet of roses after a particularly mean argument, those few inches smell all the sweeter for their scarcity.

We've learned to rely on grooming this season

We’ve learned to rely on grooming this season

Tomorrow it’s looking like we might get a foot of snow after tonight’s deluge–a particularly welcome apology after such a rude gesture.

My fingers are crossed. Yours should be too. This season we all might be getting abused by a mean winter suitor, but we should must what we can get. If the snow levels drop to predicted levels by Sunday morning, we could be in for a pow storm day tomorrow.

We can always hope.

The Trouble With Winter Forecasts

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What dreams are made of

I am not a meteorologist. I am a skier, a follower of storms, a keen jumper of cornices, a carver of hard snow. I make my living in the winter mountains. Like a farmer that relies on the vagaries of the weather, so I rely upon the deposition of snow at just the right times and in just the right amounts. Farmer’s have their almanac. Skiers have their long-term forecast.

For me the winter forecast is about more than the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Cycle, or the suddenly-everywhere Pacific Decadal Oscillation and certainly more than arctic volcanic activity of two years ago. It is about the hope of blissful powder mornings and the dream of a deep snowpack, an early winter storm and a long spring corn cycle. It is about the dream of a crisp, blue sky above corn snow that breaks into fine sugar crystals and lines of thick corduroy drawn perfectly in the snow.

Long-term forecasting is a fickle science. Meteorologists use computer models to predict three-day forecasts with great confidence. Beyond that, their certainty dwindles. And in the ski industry, we need more than merely snow, we need it to fall at the right times. During the midweek is the best time for a hearty snow storm, as is the week before a major holiday. But then we want to storms to clear so skiers and riders can enjoy the slopes with decent visibility. Even a snowy winter can still mean a bad ski season. The two are not always synonymous.

But still. This time of year, I track those forecasts like the farmer that I am. I read every prediction, watch every wooly caterpillar, and measure the size of every spider web. I’ve even put spoons under my pillow and left pennies on my windowsill to ensure a snow day. So I suppose putting a little credence into a long-term forecast isn’t any less ridiculous. It gives me something to either look forward to or ward against. One way or another, the forecasts are in. And they don’t agree.

NOAA refers to their winter forecast as the Winter Outlook. According to NOAA, we are in an El Nino phase. The fire hose of the jet stream will be aimed further south than normal, leaving the Pacific Northwest higher and dryer than last year. This could happen. However, one of our biggest snow years ever was an El Nino season, so this isn’t a death sentence. Yet, this isn’t news that I’ve welcomed with open arms.

Walking off into the sunset, ski patrol style

The Farmer’s Almanac disagrees on temperature, saying that we will be cold and dry. In a ski area, cold is always better than warm. And yet. This isn’t welcoming news either.

Long-range forecaster Joe Bastardi, however, has a hopeful prediction. He claims that the next three winters could be especially cold, due to the PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) which predicts weather patterns that last for longer cycles.

Bastardi also cites that volcanic activity and the La Nina, El Nino, Stronger La Nina pattern of the past three years looks very much like the good (c)old days of the late 1970s.

Needless to say, I’m putting my money on Bastardi. But I’m a dreamer, not an expert. What about you? What are your predictions for the winter?