The storm this week that shuttered schools, made driving a challenge and blanketed the slopes with a nice white layer probably isn’t a harbinger of the snow season to come during this La Niña year, two authorities on local weather said Wednesday.
Rather, there’s more dry weather ahead for the near future and likely longer, according to Ryan Boudreau, spokesman for aspenweather.net and Scott Stearns, forecaster and meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Grand Junction.
“There’s nothing promising through the first week of November, it’s safe to say,” Stearns said. “There are a couple of disturbances in the upper atmosphere off the coast, but there’s not a lot of force with them.”
Both Stearns and Boudreau said the long-term forecast for snowfall in this La Niña season is likely to be average at best, though Boudreau offered a caveat to that early season prediction by way his of partner in aspenweather.net, meteorologist Cory Gates
“Right now, Cory still says there’s hope,” Boudreau said. “We’re waiting for the certain warm water in the Pacific to retrograde to the west. That will allow the jet stream to set up. If that happens then we’ll get average or above-average snow.”
NOAA’s Stearns didn’t predict a shift, noting, “We’re expecting La Niña is going to carry most of the winter.”
Current patterns have seen the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies as early season weather beneficiaries with Glacier National Park, Jackson Hole, Big Sky and Banff all savoring a wet pattern. Last week, Mt. Norquay near Banff, Alberta, became the first resort in North America to fire up its lifts due to its plentiful natural snow.
Boudreau said the weather service, available by subscription, was spot on in predicting this week’s Aspen storm a full seven days in advance.
Some good news rolling in along with the storm was the cold temperatures that allowed for snowmaking to commence Sunday night on the training venue used by Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athletes at Highlands, said Jeff Hanle, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of communications. Along the way, a local temperature record of -6 degrees Fahrenheit was set, according to Boudreau.
Snowmaking on Aspen Mountain could begin as soon as Nov. 1, consistent temperatures permitting. Snowmass would be the next priority, according to Hanle. The manufactured white stuff augments the 8-10 inches of natural snow that fell this week.
SkiCo may find that the $4 million it spent to complete the final link in its top-to-bottom snowmaking system this year to be a wise investment. The expenditure includes 7,700 feet of new pipe, a pump house, 28 new snow guns, a storage pond and infrastructure for new lines.
Snowmass’ snowmaking system received a $1.6 million investment this year that will cover about 28 acres of terrain in the vicinity of Lunkerville and Lodgepole.
Bring it on
The winter outlook for 2020-21 produced by aspenweather.net shows several global models of La Niña this winter, though it indicates potentially different levels in its strength. The report was presented publicly last month during an official kickoff, though the service continues to monitor and update its predictions.
Eleven “moderate” La Niña seasons examined by the forecaster between 1964-65 and 2017-18 showed three with below normal, three with normal and five with above normal snow, according to the site.
“The pure average of Aspen’s 11 moderate La Niña Winters was 175 inches,” according to the report. Measurements are taken at the Aspen water treatment plant and not on one of the four area mountains.
In 1983-84, a moderate La Niña winter, saw 278 inches measured at this site. The 2007-08 season, considered a strong La Niña winter, launched out of the gate with 100 inches in December and January and nearly that amount in February as well.
Removing the extreme maximums and minimums for statistical purposes, the average snowfall in moderate La Niña years is 171 inches, according to aspenweather.net, noting that “normal snow at the water plant and Aspen proper is 155 inches. So both methods of averaging says snow will be 11 to 13% above normal based on the past. Sometimes a statistical average works, other times it does not.”
Their prediction this season for Aspen proper, from Oct. 1 — early May, is 182 inches, with snowfall depths on area mountains ranging from 215 inches on Buttermilk, 342 inches on Aspen Mountain, 363 inches at Highlands (which incorporates Highland Bowl totals) and 365 inches on Snowmass.
“Moral of this story, at times La Niña Winters can literally take your breath away. When La Niña Winters are good, they are often very good. The negative, when La Niña Winters are dry, they are often very dry,” according to aspenweather.net.
Boudreau noted that their predictions for eight of the past 11 seasons have been accurate, allowing that they missed the mark in 2017/18.
Meteorologist Stearns of NOAA said that he believed in terms of how snowfall will hit locally, “Aspen is really on the fence. And if I had to pick one of three options, I’d probably pick near normal.”
Asked his opinion about snowfall predictions, SkiCo’s Hanle said that while “certainly, technology has advanced, weather forecasting is an inexact science,” an opinion he bases upon years of watching meteorologists and other forecasters make their predictions. Hanle added there are variables of climate change and changing ocean temperatures that are factors as well.
“I don’t think anyone has a 100% predictable way to forecast snowfall for the year,” Hanle said, adding, “I’d like to predict the snowfall after it falls.”
This week’s powerful storm, which came during a year of extreme drought, may have ushered in a bit of optimism that even if Mother Nature doesn’t perform, manufactured snow may be relied upon to fill in the gaps.
“Having a blanket of snow on the ground and with cold temperatures is a good thing, as opposed to blowing snow on a warm surface,” Hanle said.