WHAT THE EXPERTS THINK
by Joe Stevens
Hello Everyone –
As I sit down to scribe this week’s Snow News Is Good News (Sunday morning) in Scott Depot, West Virginia the temperature outside our front door is 28 degrees. That means the snow guns are probably (finally) operating at the higher elevations throughout the southeast region.
Editor’s Note: Actually, only Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia is making snow this morning. Here is a LIVE STREAM from 8am.
Here is the Facebook feed:
Mother Nature hasn’t been kind to the mountain operation staffs up to this point, by not providing even marginal snowmaking temps, except for that brief period that allowed snowmakers to test out their systems. But don’t fret, the temps are dropping and the guns are running, just check out the webcams on this site. Resort Ski Cams
Like I have done since starting this column 19 years ago, (when I hit 20, Mike and I are going to throw a party) I again checked with some of my friendly and well dialed in weather experts to get their thoughts on what was going to take place this season for skiers and snowboarders in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. Here are their forecasts:
I am going out on a limb here by guaranteeing we will see more snow than last year! Why is that? Well, for one, you can’t get much less snow than we got last year! The second reason is that we have a big change with El Nino coming back!
If you’ve followed the winter outlooks for the past several winters you know that La Nina has been the key influence on our weather pattern for three winters in a row. That pattern of cooler than normal water temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean has helped force a weather pattern that kept most of the snow and cold out west. The tables have turned in a big way this winter with a strong El Nino (warmer than normal water temperatures in the central Pacific) anticipated. In fact, there’s a 35% chance of a “historically strong” El Nino this winter and that has big implications on our winter outlook.
A strong El Nino typically results in a weather pattern that keeps the Southeast US relatively cool and wet. Low pressure systems often track across the Deep South and Carolinas, and if enough cold air comes into play, then plentiful amounts of snow can fall in the mountains. The epically snowy winters of 1997-1998 and 2009-2010 were both winters featuring a strong El Nino. To add to that optimism, when you look at all 13 of the moderate to strong El Ninos that have taken place since 1950, you can count the number of seasons with below average snowfall on one hand.
You may hear that and think it’s going to be a cold and snowy winter, right? Not so fast! There’s more to a winter outlook than just El Nino or La Nina and the official NOAA Winter Outlook is actually pointing to a warmer than normal winter for most of the region with above normal precipitation. Just keep in mind that even a relatively mild winter can feature significant winter storms that ultimately define that winter in many people’s minds.
So, while there will likely be bouts of warmth this season, I expect that warmth to be broken up by at least a few significant winter storms that will give snow lovers plenty of natural snow to enjoy on the slopes this winter. Enjoy!
Let’s hear from another, West Virginia Mountain forecaster, Doug Harlow, Chief Meteorologist of WCHS-TV in Charleston, West Virginia:
The question is whether we can see a true snow boon this season…and with a strong El Nino pattern in place that is certainly a possibility. El Nino Winters in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast typically produce colder than normal and wetter than normal conditions for the Southeast and average to above average temperatures further north. The colder than normal weather is often the result of more frequent cloud cover and precipitation across the Southeast due to an active southern jetstream.
Some of our biggest snows in recent memory have occurred in El Nino Winters, including the January 2016 storm, the February 2003 storm and the February 1983 storm.
However, we can also see extended spells of unusual warmth and little snow in El Nino Winters…as snow events are caused by the phasing of the northern and southern branch of the jetstream…and that’s all about timing.
This Winter is likely to have weeks where skiers are disappointed by warm, snowless streches…but also some excellent weeks where big storms could leave a good bit of fresh powder in their wake. Looking at the long-range models that can forecast a month ahead it seems that Winter could get off to a slow start before ramping up in January and February. Typically, El Nino Decembers have been warm for the East Coast so don’t let the slow start get you down.
Let’s hear from another West Virginia mountain forecaster, Joe Fitzwater, Chief Meteorologist for WVNS-TV in Beckley, West Virginia:
El Nino is here and it is going to be a strong one this season. We haven’t had an El Nino winter season since 2018-2019 and a strong one since 2015-2016. This setup generally brings an active and wet setup for the southeast and a warmer and drier pattern farther north with the Pacific jet stream too far south and the polar jet too far north.
This setup of active systems in the southeast seems like a fun one for winter weather enthusiasts and a strong El Nino suggests a ‘boom’ or ‘bust’ pattern in place. The 2009-2010 winter season with a moderate El Nino comes to mind – the winter of record for many across the east. However, one key feature that is seemingly becoming a bit more difficult to come by that allowed for that season to be so snowy: cold air. We need cold air for snow production and signs this season globally already point to the availability of cold air masses for winter standards not having the same prevalence this time around that was available then. Sure, short bursts of cold air masses will reign at times but the deep and prolonged cold spells that blanketed the east during that wintry 2009-2010 season does not appear likely this season and that will likely cut back significantly on snow totals as a result.
That’s not to say we’ll have another dud of a season. The 2015-2016 winter season – the last strong El Nino season – provided a major blizzard to the Mid-Atlantic during January of 2016 – where enough cold air was in place to allow a daily record of 10.6″ of snow in Asheville, NC, a daily record of 19.4 inches at Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania and a snowfall total of 42″ in Glengary, West Virginia over in the eastern panhandle. This was a combination of a potent storm system with sufficient cold air in place due to a preceding storm and this is what we will need to see a good snow or two in the region this season. El Nino will begin to weaken toward springtime and that could create a less pronounced and active pattern as we wrap up the winter season.
With this said, I think we’ll see much better and appreciable snowfall totals in comparison to the total dud that occurred for so many last season at the ski resorts. However, I think in comparison to average, we’ll be slightly below to near average for snowfall production this season.
Let’s hear from a familiar weather forecaster to readers of Skisoutheast.com, Brad Panovich, WCNC Meteorologist in Charlotte, NC and Skisoutheast.com main weather:
With a strong to possibly very strong EL Nino things are looking good for the southeast as far as a favorable storm track this upcoming winter. The only thing that could hold back on this being a really good snow year is lack of consistent cold. This could mean we get quite a few bigger storms but in between some milder wetter weather. I also think I winter might start out mild in December but get colder for January through March time frame.
Finally, we turn to Herb Stevens, a long-time meteorologist and recognized for over 25 years along the east coast as The Skiing Weatherman; his thoughts on this season’s weather are as follows:
Looking ahead to the new winter sports season, Job One as a forecaster is to determine the impacts of the current El Nino that has warmed the waters of the equatorial Pacific in recent months. Not all El Ninos are the same, but they do share a number of weather commonalities downwind over the U.S.
They include the southern branch of the jet stream being more robust during an El Nino, and that typically leads to an active storm track that leads to above normal snowfall in the southern and especially central Appalachians. I believe that when this season concludes, resorts from North Carolina to Maryland will have experienced above normal snowfall, helped largely by one or two blockbuster storms.
Now, natural snow is wonderful but the reality is that Appalachian resorts are more dependent on machine made snow to ensure consistent conditions and the success of a season. So that begs the question of how much cold air will be available to allow the snowguns to work their magic. Previous El Ninos that were set up similar to this season’s version led to colder than normal seasons, on the order of 2 to 3 degrees and that is where I think we are heading over the next 4 months or so.
That said, December looks like it will turn mild for a while, so the race to open terrain for the holidays could end up being a last-minute race. One other benefit of El Ninos is that the patterns that they produce also favor below normal temps lingering into March, so I believe that this season will have legs on the back end. All in all, I am bullish about the upcoming winter in the central and southern Appalachians.
Well, there you have it, sounds like a season of some nice possibilities, so we will just see what will happen.
That’s it for this week, thanks again for once again joining me for my weekly thought process. Just remember whether it be cold or whether it be warm, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather will be. I still believe this season is going to be a lot of fun but as usual challenging. See ya on the slopes, cause this old guy is going to strap on the snowboard one more time.