Hello Everyone –

Now that it seems that cold weather has finally set in over the region, I just thought for my first column of the season, I would check in with some weather experts on what they thought was going to take place this season for skiers and snowboarders in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. I know there has been some snowfall throughout the region in the last few days and the snowguns are operating whenever possible as the majority of the resorts should be open by this weekend. So I just wanted to look into the future a bit to see how some weather people felt about the upcoming season. So here goes.

We first spoke with Chief Meteorologist Sean Sublett of WSET-TV in Lynchburg/Roanoke, Virginia and here are his thoughts:

When we prepare the winter outlook, we use a method of long-range forecasting that has become wildly popular over the past decade. Instead of just using observations and computer simulations of the atmosphere, we look at very large-scale patterns which often repeat themselves. We examined our unusually hot summer in Virginia and the Interior Southeastern United States. At the same time, we watched some important changes take place regarding water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The last time these summer patterns matched up was 1998, so our outlook for 2010-11 closely mirrors the conditions of the winter of 1998-99.

The short version is that it looks warmer and less snowy than the long term average. However, that does not imply a complete lack of snow. We already see several cold days in the beginning of December, and there are at least three opportunities for measurable snow in the ski resorts of the Middle Atlantic before December 15. Although there is concern about a couple of warm spells, there should still be enough cold air to support moderate bases and overnight snowmaking for the vast majority of the season. We expect more westerly flow this season, so the resorts on the windward side of the Appalachians (e.g. Snowshoe, Winterplace) will likely get more snow than those on the leeward side. Our outlook suggests the best chance of a large snowstorm (greater than 12 inches in 18 hours) will come in January, and with respect to normal, January would be the coldest month of the meteorological winter season (December through February).

Switching now to Spencer Adkins, Chief Meteorologist for WOWK-TV in Charleston, WV and he thinks:

In the never ending tug-of-war between El Nino and La Nina, we are in the La Nina phase. That means the Eastern Equatorial Pacific waters are cooler than normal. The usual effects of this pattern during ski season include "warmer than normal" temperatures for the Southeast ski resorts of the Appalachians. The amount of precipitation runs from near normal in the high country of the Carolinas to slightly above normal for the western slopes of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Anything east of the "main spine" of the Appalachians tends to see more rain (or ice – yikes!) than snow.

So, while this probably means a need for more man-made snow this season, all is not lost! I believe Mother Nature has already shown us the prevailing weather pattern with low pressure areas coming from both the southwest and northwest at varying intervals. In other words, we have to watch all directions, not just one prevailing pattern. While low pressure centers do tend to draw warm air into them at first, they also open the door for a nice shot of cold air as they pass by. If you hear the terms "northwest flow", "lake effect" or "Alberta Clipper" from your local meteorologist, grab the boots and poles! I’m not saying we won’t have a really large storm system this winter, but the bulk of the snow should come from the "back side" of those low pressure centers in the northwest wind. Those are the kinds of systems that bring us rain at first, then anywhere from a light coat to 6 inches of snow until the system moves out to sea. A few of those, mixed with man-made snow, and you’re skiing! So my overall call is for less natural snow than last season, but still plenty of great days to ski, tube and board! Be safe, but more than anything, enjoy your time outdoors on the slopes of our great Southeast ski resorts!

Now let’s head north to an old sliding buddy of mine, Joe Murgo, Chief Meteorologist for WTAJ in Altoona, Pennsylvania, this is what he is seeing:

No matter what, a snow lover is going to have a let down this year after the record breaking snowfall season in many resorts last year. That would be the case even if it were going to be a snowy winter, and this year is going to be quite different from last year. The good news is that a trough will set up over the Eastern United States setting the stage for a very cold pattern through most of December. Resorts are going to have above average snowfall for the Christmas holiday. Though things will turn around for January as a moderate La Nina in the Pacific will keep the jet stream to the north and give us a lean period with milder weather. January may bring a lot of mix to rain events so hopefully the early snow pack will help us through this lean time.

Things are not lost for the season though. In between warm spells, the pattern is going to be prone to a couple of extreme arctic blasts which will help the snowmaking. I also expect a turnaround sometime in February back to a colder pattern for the end of the winter. This is going to set the stage for a comeback and a later season than the past couple of years. Spring may come a little later this upcoming year and March can experience below average temperatures. This means that we may be able to ski a little longer through the month of March.

Finally, we turn to Herb Stevens, a long-time meteorologist and recogonized along the east coast as The Skiing Weatherman; his thoughts on this season’s weather is as follows:

Last winter the ski resorts of the mid Atlantic and Southeast were blessed with an abundance of natural snow, as well as ample cold air to make snow on a consistent basis. An El Nino episode in the Pacific Ocean dominated the weather pattern over most of North America last winter, but this winter, the sea-surface temperature regime in the Pacific has reversed and we are in the midst of a La Nina. In a La Nina, the waters of the equatorial Pacific are colder than normal, and that has a profound effect on the intensity of the jet stream as it moves downstream across the southern U.S. When an El Nino is in place, the waters are warmer than normal, and there is more thermal energy and moisture available for the flow passing overhead. That energizes the sub tropical (or southern) branch of the jet stream, resulting in enhanced storminess across the breadth of the southern U.S. Conversely, when those waters are cold, the southern branch of the jet is a lot less active. That will be the case through this winter, so the storms from the Gulf and the resulting heavy snow of last winter will seldom be repeated this season.

A typical La Nina winter features a colder than normal December, however, and this month will bring the best opportunities for natural snow and air masses cold enough to allow consistent snowmaking. Once we get to the New Year, an upper level ridge will take shape over the southeastern U.S., and that will lead to a rather dull middle of the season, with milder than normal temps and only occasional shots of cold and natural snow. There will still be opportunities for snowmaking in the higher elevations, and thankfully those snowmaking systems are strong enough to make a lot of snow in a relatively small window, but I anticipate that milder than normal temps will lead to loose granular surface conditions a good deal of the time in January and February. The ridge will likely weaken toward March, which should allow the season to run close to its normal length, although lower elevation resorts could be running a little low on base snow by then. All is not lost, again because of the snowmaking power that the resorts possess. But it sure looks as though the most consistent winter weather of this season will be found in the early stages of the season as once again, water temperature fluctuations thousands of miles away in the central equatorial Pacific exert a high degree of influence on weather in the Southeast and mid Atlantic regions.

<Joe Stevens and son Christian (Joseph we need to get an updated photo!

So now you have a little insight as to why playing with seasonal outlooks is like playing with fire on a dry windy day in the middle of a drought. Chances are your going to get burned. Since I am a glass half full kind of guy I will leave you with this. Conditions for Appalachian riding (skiing and boarding) will end up being okay this year due to the snowmaking capabilities of all of the resorts in the southeast region.

That’s it for the season’s first column, more to come as the season continues, just remember whether it be cold or whether it be hot, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather will be. Think about it! See you on the slopes. 

Send your comments to: [email protected]  or [email protected]

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.

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Joe Stevens
Joe is well known around the southeastern ski circles. Stevens was Director of Communications at Snowshoe Mountain Resort for 16 seasons with another 15 years prior to that in Richmond, Virginia newsrooms. Joe serves on numerous boards and committees and currently is a spokesperson for the West Virginia ski areas.Joe has been a featured columnist on SkiSoutheast since 2005 and has written numerous articles for us, as well as for others promoting all of the southeastern ski resorts. Joe resides in Charleston, West Virginia, with his wife, Angie, and son, Christian. He is an avid snowboarder and marathon runner.