How Bad is The Start to This Season Compared to Years Past?

As we are all too aware, it was been a slow start to the season to say the least.  I’ll be out of town beginning this weekend for the holidays, so I won’t get to take part in the cold snap that is headed our way.  If I was going to be here, you can bet I’d be headed to either App, Beech, or Sugar to get some runs in.  I had two short days on snow back in November…and that’s it for me this year so far.  I am seriously starting to think I might not get any days on snow in the month of December, which would be a first for me in the 10 years or so of snowboarding I have under my belt.

I was sitting on the couch the other night, reading my Twitter timeline on my tablet, and I kept seeing depressing (to me) tweets from the numerous meteorologists that I follow.  Twitter is a fantastic resource for weather information (if you’re following the right people), but it has also been bumming me out lately.  I keep seeing pictures from powder days out in Utah, Tahoe, or Colorado.  I scroll up and then there is a weather model map showing more warmth and no snow for us here in the East.  It’s killing me.

It did get me thinking though.  I was curious to see just how warm and dry it has been compared to the past.  Are we just living in the moment and it’s been this way before?  Or is it really THAT bad.  So I started looking…

I’m was able to find two different weather stations in the region that offer a decent amount of historical snow and temperature data.  One is at Snowshoe and has data back to 1976.  The other is atop Beech Mountain and goes back to 1991.  I chose these locations because they are generally considered to be the snowiest ski areas in their respective states, those being West Virginia and North Carolina.  Also, twenty five to forty years is a good chunk of time so I think it’s a big enough sample size, at least for what I’m trying to do here anyways.

Snowshoe

November

  • Average high temperature is 43.5°
    • This year: 46.4°
  • Average low temperature is 28.5°
    • This year: 33.8°
  • Average number of days with a high temperature less than or equal to 32° is 6
    • This year: 2
  • Average number of days with a low temperature less than or equal to 32° is 18
    • This year: 13
  • Average snowfall is 12.9″
    • This year: Trace

So November was several degrees warmer on average and we had several fewer nights of snowmaking temperatures.  Couple that with the fact that there was only a trace of snow and you can see why there wasn’t any Thanksgiving skiing or riding up there.  All in all, it was rather warm but not completely outlandish (at least compared to so far this month) and there have been years where November was slightly worse.  November of 1985 only had 9 days of low temperatures that were sub-freezing.  That same year averaged daily high temperatures of 50.1 degrees for November.  So, while this November was warmer and less snowier than average, it wasn’t unprecedented.

One interesting note, there were 58 inches of snow that fell up there in November of 2008!  Crazy early season conditions I bet.

December

This month is where things have gotten really rough.

  • Average high temperature is 34° (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 36.5°
    • This year so far: 46.3°
  • Average low temperature is 19.2° (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 21.6°
    • This year so far: 34.6°
  • Average number of days with a high temperature less than or equal to 32° is 13 (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 5.8
    • This year so far: 0
  • Average number of days with a low temperature less than or equal to 32° is 26 (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 11.7
    • This year so far: 5
  • Average snowfall is 29.7″ (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 13.5″
    • This year so far: 1″
chart
Snowshoe December monthly snowfall since 1976. Click to enlarge.

High and low temperatures up there are running double digits above normal.  Sheesh.  Through the middle of the month, only 1998 and 2001 had higher average daily maximum temperatures.  Those years were averaging high temperatures of 50.2 degrees and 51.4 degrees up to this point in the month.  Both of those years ended up with an overall average high temperature between 40 and 41 degrees though, so it got much colder during the second half of those Decembers and they ended up well below the 46.8 degrees we’re averaging right now.

As noted, there have only been 5 days in December with low temperatures at or below freezing so far this year.  Since 1976, there has never been another December with single digit days.  The next lowest is 16 back in 1984.  Snowshoe might still hit the double digit mark for the month, but I’m thinking they are going to set a record for fewest days with low temperatures at or below freezing for the month of December.

As for snowfall, it’s all over the place.  There has never been a December without any snowfall at Snowshoe.  Don’t let the above graph fool you.  The station didn’t report at all for the month of December in 1985 and 1990, hence why those years have zero.  There have been numerous years with single digits.  We’re at a single inch right now.  The next lowest total for December is 2.4″ back in 1998.  You’d think we have to get above that, right?

Beech

November

  • Average high temperature is 45.9°
    • This year: 48.9°
  • Average low temperature is 30.6°
    • This year: 36.1°
  • Average number of days with a high temperature less than or equal to 32° is 4
    • This year: 2
  • Average number of days with a low temperature less than or equal to 32° is 16
    • This year: 12
  • Average snowfall is 5.6″
    • This year: Trace

Just like Snowshoe, temperatures were several degrees warmer, but not completely ridiculous or unprecedented.  Beech was able to make snow for several nights and open for a while in November.

As for the snow, I’ll be honest with you, the snowfall averages for Beech from this station are questionable at best, as the first 12 years or so (1991-2003) there are many days showing as missing.  However, I do not know if those days simply weren’t reported because there wasn’t any snow.  That seems plausible, so I included the averages.  Draw your own conclusions.  Either way, only a trace this year was no bueno.

December

The first half of this month has been a rough one as well for Beech.  Here are the numbers…

  • Average high temperature is 38.5° (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 40.2°
    • This year so far: 48.1°
  • Average low temperature is 23.7° (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 25.3°
    • This year so far: 33.8°
  • Average number of days with a high temperature less than or equal to 32° is 8 (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 3.5
    • This year so far: 1
  • Average number of days with a low temperature less than or equal to 32° is 23 (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 10.4
    • This year so far: 6
  • Average snowfall is 14.5″ (whole month)
  • Average for December 1st – 15th is 6.5″
    • This year so far: 0″
Average low temperatures at Beech for the month of December since 1991. No other year is at 30 degrees.
Average low temperatures at Beech for the month of December since 1991. No other year is at 30 degrees. Hopefully we don’t end there. Click to enlarge.

 

chart (1)
December monthly snowfall for Beech Mountain since 1991. There were a few years with only a trace. Click to enlarge.

As with Snowshoe, Beech’s temperatures have been ridiculously higher than normal…around 8-10 degrees.  There have been years where the first half of December has been close to or even warmer than this year so far.  Most notably, 1998 and 2001 (again) had average high temperatures for the first half of December in the low 50’s!  However, the second half of those months must have been frigid as they both ended up in the low to mid 40’s overall for December.

As for average low temperatures during the month of December, Beech has never averaged anything above 30 degrees since 1991 for the entire month.  The closest they got was last year, when the average low temperature was 29.8.  However, there have been a handful of instances where the first half of December met this threshold.  The first half of December 2001 had average low temperatures of 38.8 degrees.  That month ended up with average low temps of 27.5 overall though, so it got REALLY cold during the final few weeks.  There was a similar scenario for 1998 and 2012 as well, although not as extreme.

As you’d expect with an average low temperature of 33.8 degrees, snowmaking nights have been limited this month.  While 6 nights of lows below 32 sounds alright for half the month, I’m pretty sure those temperatures haven’t been far below the freezing mark, meaning it was marginal snowmaking conditions at best and the warmth has wiped out the snow that was made.  There is a very real possibility that Beech could see single digit days with low temperatures below freezing based on the medium to long range weather outlook.  1991 had 10 days, but it is missing 19 days of data, so we’ll throw that year away.  The next closest year would be 2001 which only saw 17 days of below freezing low temperatures.  That’s almost three times where we’re at right now!

As I already mentioned, snowfall numbers are suspect with this station and there are a ton of missing days for the month of December as well.  I’m not sure if all of the missing days were simply not reported due to a lack of snow on those days.  The data that is there ranges from a trace of snow to 52.4″(!!!) back in 2010.  Here’s a video I made from that month.

Man, what I would give to have riding conditions like that right now.

Conclusion

What’s my conclusion?  It’s definitely been one of the slowest/crummiest starts to a winter we’ve seen in the last 40 years.  That said, it appears to have happened before, to a certain extent anyways.  For instance, 1998 and 2001 started off warmer than this year, but at least the second halves of those Decembers were frigid.

We are in store for a cold snap this weekend, but then it looks like warmth arrives again next week, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the rest of December brings.  If we continue with the current weather pattern through the end of the year, then I think it’s safe to say we’ll easily have the worst start to a ski season since at least 1976.  The combo of warm temperatures, no snow, and rain for basically two months is not how I envisioned the start of my season.

All is not lost though.  We still have January, February, and March to go and almost all the initial winter forecasts had them being snowy.  Let’s hope El Niño, Spanish for The Niño, comes through and delivers a ton of powder turns for the rest of the season.  We deserve it after the start to the season we’ve had.

Finally, I can’t imagine being the manager of a ski resort in the region right now, and we should all applaud them for battling Mother Nature every year.  It takes a lot of time, effort, money, and heartache to do what they do.

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Kenny Griffin
Kenny grew up in Concord, NC, which is right outside of Charlotte. He graduated from UNC Charlotte in December 2010 with a degree in meteorology and joined Ski Southeast immediately thereafter. In addition to his Appnet duties, he helps with day to day operations of Ski Southeast and is also in charge of our sister site, ResortCams.com. In his own words... "I discovered this website a few years back and visit it on a daily basis. I lurked on the messageboard for a while before becoming actively involved and have met some very cool people because of it. Needless to say, I am VERY stoked to be a part of the team and I think I have a unique insight into what people want from the site seeing as I used to be on the outside looking in. I'm sure some people who are reading this have seen me on the mountain before. I am frequently at Beech Mountain and it’s not hard to spot me, as I usually have a camera on my head. I love to document my days on snow and have posted some videos on the messageboard before. If you ever see me out there, feel free to say hey!" You can email Kenny directly at [email protected]