WHAT THE EXPERTS THINK
Compiled 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 36 degrees. That means the snow guns are probably operating at the higher elevations.
It’s been a great week for openings as skiing, snowboarding, and tubing are available in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Don’t look now but the season is here, folks.
Like I have done since starting this column 17 years ago, 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:
The first one is from Tony Edwards, a meteorologist at Charleston, West Virginia’s National Weather Service Office. Here is what Tony is forecasting for this year:
La Niña is at it again this winter and NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is keying in on that water temperature pattern in the Pacific Ocean as a major clue to how the winter ahead will ultimately shake out. This will be the second year in a row with a water temperature pattern featuring abnormally cool waters in the central Pacific and the responding atmospheric patterns can influence the weather over a good part of the globe.
The typical wintertime La Niña weather pattern across the Northern Hemisphere features a wet pattern in the Pacific Northwest and Ohio Valley as the jet stream sends weather systems tracking through these regions. On the flipside, it’s often drier than normal across the southern U.S. As for temperatures, colder than normal conditions are often found over western Canada into the Northern Plains with warmer than normal conditions over the southeast.
Given the high confidence that La Niña will stick around all winter long, it’s no surprise that the official NOAA Winter Outlook mirrors to a great extent the typical winter La Niña patterns. The outlook indicates greater chances for an abnormally warm winter across the southeast ski region with pretty much equal chances of above normal, normal, or below normal precipitation.
Now, what about snow? Well, NOAA’s Winter Outlook doesn’t include a snowfall forecast. However, given the strong indications that La Niña will drive our weather this winter, we can get some insight into the snowfall pattern and what to expect by looking at snowfall tendencies during past La Niña winters. The average snowfall patterns for all La Niña winters indicate normal to slightly below normal snowfall across the southeast ski region. The big snows during typical La Niña winters fall in the Pacific Northwest and into New England.
If you don’t have a travel budget that supports a ski vacation to the resorts of Washington or New England, there’s still hope for the southeast! There have been some major winter storms in past La Niña winters. A storm on New Year’s Day 1971 dumped over two feet of snow on the West Virginia and Virginia mountains. The month of December 2010 was also very good for ski hounds with 65” of powder measured during the month at Snowshoe and 52” at Beech Mountain, NC. And let us not forget that the epic winter of 1995/96 was also a La Nina winter and featured over 275” of snow measured at Snowshoe!
Let’s hear from another, West Virginia Mountain forecaster, Doug Harlow, Chief Meteorologist of WCHS-TV in Charleston, West Virginia:
For the second year in a row a La Nina pattern will be in place for our upcoming Winter. Cooler than normal water persists in the east-Pacific Ocean, and this can have an impact on the weather across the United States.
However, it appears the La Nina will be somewhat weaker than last Winter…and there are other factors at play that will dictate our weather. Looking back at the last time we had back-to-back La Nina Winters…2010-2012…the first Winter (2010-2011) had a very cold and snowy start and close to normal snowfall, while the following Winter (2011-12) had 50% of normal snowfall and well above normal temperatures.
Shorter-range forecasts that look into December and early January suggest some 3-5 day stretches of wintry weather, but these could be followed by potentially longer spells of warmer than normal weather. If that pattern holds into the rest of January and February it would suggest an off and on season at the slopes, with some weekends featuring great skiing while others (during warmer than normal stretches) presenting less than ideal conditions.
Overall, the winter will likely feature above normal temperatures and below normal snowfall but the duration of those spells of cold, snowy weather will determine if this Winter can still present some great skiing opportunities like last year did.
Let’s hear from a down south meteorologist, Dave Osterberg, Morning Meteorologist for FOX13, WTVT-TV in Tampa, Florida:
Hello Ski lovers, it’s time once again to see if we can decipher the long-term snow forecast for the upcoming 2021-2022 ski season. Before we do that, a quick check back from last year. La Nina dominated last winter, which brought milder & a bit drier conditions. There was some snow, but on average most areas were about 60% of normal.
The problem is that we are now thrust back into another La Nina winter. In general during La Niña, the Pacific jet stream often pushes high into the North Pacific and is not as pronounced in the southeast. What this translates to is slightly warmer than normal temperatures, and a bit drier than normal as well. If you go back to last year and look at an area like Snowshoe in WV, they recorded around 100 inches of snow. Sounds great, right? But the average is closer to 180 inches. And while each individual ski area has different averages and totals, most were below normal last season. In fact, you have to go back to the 2017-2018 ski season for the last time everyone had near normal snowfall in the southeast.
The outlook for snowfall this season looks to be up and down a bit. That doesn’t mean areas can’t get dumped on occasionally, or a large cold snap from time to time. It’s just with the same pattern expected this winter, similar results to this past ski season should be expected. So, when the local forecast does call for a good snowfall, go enjoy the slopes, because during a La Nina winter, snowfall can be streaky. You don’t want to miss out on a good powder day when there may not be that many overall.
Let’s hear from another West Virginia mountain forecaster, Joe Fitzwater, Meteorologist for WOWK-TV in Huntington, West Virginia:
This generally means that we see cold water brought to the surface off the west coast due to upwelling increasing. This cold water in the Pacific Ocean pushes the jet stream north over this area, which leads to the jet stream dipping on the east coast.
Storms like to ride along the jet stream and with it generally dipping south over the eastern United States, that should bring slightly above normal precipitation into place – that provides good potential for snow production! We usually see above average temperatures as well in association with a mild to moderate La Nina which is the counteragent to what would otherwise be a wonderful snow opportunity when moderate La Nina presents itself. This mild to moderate La Nina pattern will tend to weaken a bit as we head toward the end of winter, with the strongest time period of La Nina right around the new year.
Ironically, this fits the bill somewhat closely to what we experienced last season, which was only a slightly stronger La Nina than what is forecast for this season. La Nina was strongest around December of last season and became weaker as the season progressed.
With La Nina expected to strengthen for a couple of more months, I’m expecting the peak snow potential to be delayed by about a month in comparison to what took place last season.
With all of this being considered, I think December will be a below average snowfall month, with temperatures being above average. As La Nina strengthens into January and February, I think we will see our share of healthy snow production from Mother Nature across the Appalachians before subsiding toward March. In addition, I am forecasting temperatures to be well above normal for December, with only slightly above normal temperatures for January and February. Putting all of that together, I think we will see a near normal to slightly below normal snowfall season with above average temperatures overall for the winter season.
Now let’s see what Brad Panovich, Meteorologist, WCNC-TV, Charlotte, NC and Skisoutheast.com’s Chief Weather forecaster thinks:
La Nina will rule again this year, and it typically means warmer and drier for many areas of the southeast. This isn’t always bad news for the ski season due to the chance for an active Ohio Valley storm track.
This track can often lead to better snow chances for the mountains of the southeast, even if it means snow outside of the mountains.
The average cold and snow in this pattern usually mean less of both, but occasionally, the pattern can shift just enough to keep the cold and snow close enough for the mountains.
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:
As was the case a year ago, a La Nina event is present in the tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean. That means that the water temperatures along the equatorial belt are cooler than the long-term averages…those same waters are warmer than normal in an El Nino.
Both events have fairly strong correlations to winter weather over the United States due to the water temperature differential impacting the overlying jet stream configurations downstream over North America.
Typically, La Ninas tend to be somewhat problematic over the mountains of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. La Nina winters bring a battle between upper troughs and cold air across the northern U.S. and milder air underneath an upper ridge over the Southeast. La Nina winter temperatures usually run above normal in the central and southern Appalachians, which reduces snowmaking opportunities and natural snowfall to some extent.
Storm tracks set up between the two battling air masses, with most low-pressure centers running through the Ohio Valley. That puts the resorts on the milder side of the storm and usually leads to a mixed bag of precip types.
It is important to realize that not all La Ninas are the same. They can be influenced by other atmospheric events. One such factor is the QBO, or Quasi Biennial Oscillation, a phenomenon of a change of direction in the winds at the stratosphere over the Pacific every 28 months or so. Those winds shift back and forth from west to east and each direction has a different set of correlations with winter weather downstream. Last year we were in a “westerly QBO” and this year is an “easterly QBO”. Easterly QBOs allow cold air to press farther into the U.S. than the westerly version, so that leads me to believe that this winter sports season will bring more in the way of cold air and snow than we saw last winter. Some easterly QBO/La Nina winters can be blockbusters, as was the case in 1995-1996.
Last winter was disappointing…I expect a better outcome this season, including another feature from ‘95-’96…a fast start to the season in December.
Well, there you have it, sounds like a season of up and down weather conditions, so what else is new, right? Just saying.
That’s it for this week, thanks for 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 challenging.