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Warmer Winters Mean Higher Stakes for Ski Resorts

Last year’s warm winters forced big-name ski resorts to close early.

Copyright: Tadej Zupancic

In the past two months The Old Farmer’s Almanac and The Farmers’ Almanac released their annual winter forecasts. Both are predicting frigid and snowy conditions. Skiers and snowboarders in western states that have suffered all summer from drought and forest fires will likely take any good news they can get. Last winter’s lack of snow forced dozens of big-name ski resorts to close early, including Sierra-at-Tahoe, Homewood Mountain Resort and Badger Pass. And in the last decade the US’s winter tourism, which is a $12.2 billion industry, has lost more than $1 billion.

But the veracity of those almanacs’ reports — which use their own top-secret formulas, according to TIME‘s August 2015 article, which factor in things like sunspots, tidal patterns and planetary positions — is questionable at best. Neither of the two almanacs factor in climate change. Meteorologists, climatologists, and anybody who knows anything about climate aren’t impressed.

Porter Fox is one of those people. Having worked at Powder Magazine for over 20 years and authored Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, Fox knows a thing or two about the white stuff. He wrote The New York Times‘ 2014 article “The End of Snow?” which brought some pretty startling facts to light: 1 million square miles of spring snow cover have disappeared from the Northern Hemisphere in the last 50 years; 14 of the last 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000; and, if the pattern in climate change persists, hundreds of ski resorts across the US will be forced to shut down by the end of this century. But Fox said predicting this winter’s snowfall, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, was difficult.

“El Niño is actually a pretty good predictor of winter weather because it’s a winter phenomenon. And we in the Pacific Northwest have a pretty strong relationship with it. But it’s not always perfect.”

“There are so many factors that go into the water cycle: temperature, jet stream, El Niño,” said Fox. “But in general, we’re seeing more frequent dry winters across the US West.” Climate change happens in what Fox calls “step changes;” while individual years vary widely, the 30-, 50- and 100-year averages of winter are getting drier and drier.

One major factor in weather pattern predictions, and one you’re likely to hear about this winter, is El Niño. “It’s an oscillation off the coast of Peru, and then further out in the Pacific, where warm water extends over the whole basin,” said Karin Bumbaco, the Assistant State Climatologist with the Office of the Washington State Climatologist (OWSC). “And then La Niña is the opposite: there’s colder water in the central and eastern Pacific.” Bumbaco said monitoring El Niño is important because it changes the location of thunderstorms, which has implications for jet streams and weather patterns around the whole globe. “El Niño is actually a pretty good predictor of winter weather because it’s a winter phenomenon. And we in the Pacific Northwest have a pretty strong relationship with it,” said Bumbaco. “But it’s not always perfect.”

Global Warming? Last Winter in the Northeast was Freezing!

Last year’s winter was the warmest on record, and most people blame global warming. So why did the Northeast experience such an extreme cold? Surprisingly, that too was caused by global warming. According to Fox, the jet stream that flows down from the Arctic isn’t blocked by the same of cold air that it has been in the past 10, 20 and 30 years. This cold air blockage normally keeps the jet stream flowing north and west out over Canada and the Pacific Northwest. With warmer air temperatures, the jet stream has become more erratic than it used to be. Therefore it fluctuates more from year to year. Last year, the jet stream fluctuated very far south and hit the America’s Northeast.

There are three kinds of winter weather cycles: El Niño years, La Niña years, and neutral years, without a strong anomaly either way. This year an El Niño is being forecasted, which typically means warmer and drier than normal winter in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana. But it doesn’t always work out like that. “This El Niño is actually forecasted to be a really strong event and we don’t have that many data points for strong events,” Bumbaco said. This is because they don’t happen often. “In past strong events, like in ’97-’98, we had normal precipitation and okay snowpack. So it didn’t fit with that usual relationship. The same thing happened in ’82-’83; we had wetter than normal conditions.”

In short, there’s some hope for a snowier winter. But Bumbaco said the Climate Prediction Center, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) division that makes official forecasts for the upcoming fall and winter, is calling for warmer- and drier-than-normal conditions.

“Snow in the Rocky Mountains provides drinking water for 50 million people west of the Rockies… and it’s disappearing at an unsettling rate.”

This confusing stew of predictions and bucked trends is further muddled by the West’s drought. While many might see the current drought in the West as a way to predict this upcoming winter, the truth is, the drought is a reflection of the winter that just was — a notoriously bad one for snowfall in the Pacific West, and warm. Washington’s average temperature was 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average.

The bigger picture is that the snow shortage isn’t just consequential for skiers, but all who live in the West. “Snow in the Rocky Mountains provides drinking water for 50 million people west of the Rockies,” said Fox. That’s because snow is a natural form of water storage. “It provides water for farmland, rivers and their habitats, hydroelectric plants, forests, aquaculture, it’s the building block of our environment and the way we live. And it’s disappearing at an unsettling rate.”

As for what’s going to happen this winter in the Pacific Northwest, it’s difficult to know. Bumbaco predicts that Fall will be wetter than last year, and then it’ll turn dry once January 2016 hits. “It’s more safe to say that we have more confidence in the warmer than normal temperatures,” says Bumbaco, “and less confidence in the forecast for the precipitation. But we expect it to be drier.” The bottom line: monitor the arctic jet stream and El Niño, but expect no guarantees.

“I’ve worked for Powder for 20 years,” said Fox, “and I’ve learned that there’s no way to predict [snowfall]. I can tell you in the next 50 years what the trend is likely to be. But for the next six months it would be irresponsible for me to say what climate change is going to make this winter be like.”

Porter Fox is an advocate for Protect Our Winters (POW). To learn how you can help fight climate change, visit their website.

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