Hello Everyone –
Just this past week the majority of the resorts in the southeast and mid-Atlantic regions were graced with either precious cold temperatures or natural snowfall or both. The winter conditions came after a thaw period and right before another thaw period. The true definition of a roller coaster weather season facing this region’s resort operators from another La Nina weather pattern.
To understand what has been, is and will be going on during this ski season, I inquired with five meteorologists from throughout the area and nation. I asked them all the same question, what the heck is up with this La Nina, will this weather roller coaster continue and if so for how long. Just remember don’t shoot the messenger.
First up, Herb Stevens, known on a number of TV stations on the east coast as The Skiing Weatherman. The roller coaster will continue, with a bias toward warmer than normal, in the central and southern Appalachians…at least into February. This is typical of moderate La Ninas, such as the one that is in progress in the Pacific Ocean at this time. I believe that the best skiing and riding on a daily basis will be found later in February and into much of March, when snowfall will be above normal in the central and southern Appalachians. Until the La Nina starts to weaken somewhat and the overall pattern changes as a result…again, this won’t happen until mid Feburary…the regions resorts are going to have to "hunt and peck" with their snowmaking, and they are going to have to endure above normal temperatures most of the time.
Next up, Sean Sublette, Meteorologist for WSET-TV in Roanoke/Lynchburg, VA. Typically, La Nina leads to winter seasons in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic with large swings in temperatures and lower than average precipitation amounts. In the La Nina configuration, the subtropical branch of the jet stream is not as active, so there are fewer opportunities for warm and moist air to get into the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. On the other hand, a La Nina winter does lend itself to more frequent cold spells with northwest winds than an El Nino winter does. These northwest winds frequently deposit snow on the windward side of the Appalachians, which do a great service to the resorts of West Virginia and Maryland.
Batting third is Spencer Adkins, Meteorologist for WOWK-TV in Huntington/Charleston, WV. The overall pattern continues to look as if we’ll see warmer than average conditions across the east. However, this does not mean we will not see any fresh natural powder. In fact there are signals that toward mid-Jan we’ll have a nice cold outbreak for a few days. The La Nina pattern usually favors wetter conditions across the Midwest and areas leading right up to the Ohio River Valley. Areas east of the Appalachians and toward the Southeast usually see warmer than average temperatures. That looks like it is holding true this season. However, with dub-freezing temps, the snow makers can make a good base at night, and melting does take a long time. This may not be the snowiest season thanks to this current La Nina situation, but at least there still is an opportunity for snow making and some really enjoyable days on the slopes.
Taking care of the clean-up spot is Brad Panovich, Meteorologist for WCNC-TV in Charlotte, NC and a regular contributor to skisoutheast.com. La Nina affects the southeastern ski areas by bringing warmer and drier than average weather. The amount above average is dependent on how strong the La Nina is. Moderate to strong La Nina brings drought and heat to the southeast. The reason for this is La Niña forces the polar jet father north than normal which moves the winter storm track from the pacific northwest into the Ohio valley then into Canada. Because the polar jet is so far north, fluctuations in the jet can bring much warmer than average temperatures to the region then compared to an average winter. In an average winter we would get swings in warm and cold weather, but the warmer outbreaks are much warmer when we are under the influence of La Nina. The only good news is that during the winter months one pattern never dominates for too long because of the fast moving flow at the jet stream level. The net result is we will still have some awesome weeks of cold and snow, but the usual winter thaws will be much more severe than in your average southeast winter.
And for one more expert opinion, here are the thoughts of Paul Goodloe, Meteorologist for The Weather Channel. As for La Nina, La Nina years correlate very well with a stormy Pacific Northwest. As for the east coast and southeast, the correlation is not as good. Some will say that it is supposed to be warmer and dryer, but that is not a sure thing. The only sure thing is the PacNW. So far this year, the east and the southeast have had their fair share of storms and very cold weather. This current mild spell will only last a few more days. So what should the mid-Atlantic and southeast look for to predict this season? The NAO or North Atlantic Oscillation. It will take too long to give a decent explanation, but the bottom line is when the NAO is positive, like it is now, the east is milder leading to more rain than snow. But when the NAO goes negative, the east will experience more cold outbreaks that can easily lead to snow. The NAO was negative in the middle of December, and the forecast is for it to return to the negative the middle of January. As for the outlook through April, the NAO is expected to average out just slightly negative. That means we will see more of the same this winter, more cold spells, followed by a brief warm-up, followed by another cold spell. Overall, much cooler than last winter for sure.
There you have it from the experts and after cutting through the technical jargon from the weatherman it looks like the ride is going to continue for the majority of this ski season. The moral of the story is, when the temperatures do drop and allow the snow guns to operate, you can bet the resorts will take full advantage of the opportunity so don’t forget your goggles. Also, when it snows and there is fresh powder at your favorite resort; take the day off because powder days in the southeast and mid-Atlantic are going to be the exception not the rule.
That’s it for this week; more to come as the season continues. Just be patient as whether it be cold or whether it be hot, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather will be. Think about it!
Joe Stevens, a member of the southeast ski industry since 1990 is a regular columnist for skisoutheast.com and serves as the Communications Director for the West Virginia Ski Areas Association.