WHAT THE EXPERTS THINK
By Joe Stevens
(Joe Stevens put in the work so our readers don’t have to and queried seven of the top meteorologists in the region to see what they see ahead for the 2020-2021 Ski & Snowboard Season.)
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 51 degrees. A much better temperature for a run on the streets than on the slopes. But I am here to say, it is coming as three-areas, Sugar and Cataloochee in North Carolina and White Grass touring Center in West Virginia have all provided sliding this season. Congrats to them.
Like I have done since starting this column 16 years ago, I again checked out what some of my friendly and well dialed in weather experts think is going to take place this season for skiers and snowboarders in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. Here are their forecasts:
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Winter outlooks are always a challenge. Like hurricane outlooks in the spring, we can see the ingredients that are on the table which could make for a specific type of season. But they don’t always come together just right. Most meteorologists knew this would be a very active hurricane season, but I don’t think many would have forecast 30 named storms.
Similarly, there are several ingredients to point us in a general direction for the winter, but the details can still be fuzzy.
The overarching signal is La Niña, which is the abnormal cooling of the ocean water in the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. As a general rule, that pattern tends to keep the Middle Atlantic and Southeast ski areas milder and drier than normal. Having said that, there will still be some colder periods which lend themselves to some natural snow and certainly some snowmaking. And the frequent bursts of Arctic air always lend themselves to natural snow at the resorts in West Virginia and Maryland.
But La Niña lends itself to a more persistent area of high pressure near Bermuda, and the clockwise air flow around it is the reason the milder spells would outweigh the colder ones in our part of the country. It also tends to shift the major storm track a little farther to the west, so that blockbuster snowstorms are far less likely in the resort locations. I would also expect a few mid-winter mild spells, perhaps lasting a week or so, where the temperature remains unusually warm. This could make it difficult to maintain a viable snowpack on the slopes for a little while.
There will be some good skiing this season, but I would be really surprised if it ended up being an especially cold and snowy winter. I would expect the total snow to be about 70 to 80 percent of normal.
As skiers normally do, they check out as many winter forecasts as possible and are all well versed that about the upcoming La Nina; however, the correlation for certain weather for the ski areas in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast is not nearly as strong as other parts of the nation.
There is a tendency for a little more precipitation than usual, but not so much in cold. Therefore, the elevation of the mountains will have to help to make some of the rain and wintry mixes to more snow. However, there is a lot more that influences our ski season than weather. Ocean water temperatures in other locations makes a big difference along with the growth in snowcover through October and into November. The position of ice in the arctic, and something called the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation index (QBO) can give us a hint to how strong the polar vortex will be and where it will be positioned.
Given all of these, we can look at similar analog winters from the past. I found 2015-16 is the strongest analog with 2010-11 and 2007-08. It’s hard to come up with years earlier than that because the globes ocean temperatures are much warmer than decades ago.
Weighting these winters shows the Southeast Ski areas with a warm, but wet winter. Not the best combination so we will need technology to handle what Mother Nature doesn’t bring. However, one of those winters (2010-11) really was cold, and while dry, the precipitation that fell was mostly snow. So, I guess I’m saying there’s a chance that Mother Nature gives us a little help.
After two years of mild El Nino conditions the atmosphere pattern has flipped to La Nina, in which there is an extended period of colder than normal sea-surface temperatures in the east-central Pacific. This will mark the first La Nina winter since 2017-18.
What does that mean for the East Coast? Generally, the northern branch of the jet stream dominates through Winter in a La Nina pattern, which results in fast-moving storms that take more of a westward track. This typically leads to normal to above normal temperatures…normal to below normal precipitation…and generally lower than normal snowfall in our region.
It should be stressed, however, that much of this is based on the track of those low-pressure systems. A shift of 100 miles makes the difference between a mild rain or icy mix and a healthy snow. Looking back at recent La Nina Winters…more often than not they’ve featured below normal snowfall for us…BUT some of our snowiest Winters, such as 1995-96, have been La Nina Winters too….so it’s by no means a perfect correlation.
Many signals suggest a slow start to the ski season this winter, with the jet stream staying mostly zonal (east-west) and north of us in December and possibly into the first half of January. After that we could start to see things trend wintrier from mid-January into February…so in spite of an auspicious beginning things could improve. In fact, given the low bar set by last winter I suspect this winter overall will be an improvement for skiers, we just may have to wait until after the new year for the best conditions.
Well, we’ve certainly been due for a good snow year, as the statistics on ‘natural’ snow around these parts have been lacking, to say the least. Now, it’s not like the ski resorts have gotten “no” snow, as the average amount each season has usually crested over 100″… Just not the 180″ that they’re used to. No matter, they’ve been quite capable of making up the difference by way of their quite-advanced snow-making technology. It’s when we don’t have snow and have mild temperatures that the problems start. This is the main culprit behind the delays in opening the slopes this year. However, if past years that started out like crazy #2020 has weather-wise, we may well be in luck to break the curse this time.
Ironically enough, the past several months in terms of average temperature and precipitation have been (wait for it) ‘normal’. And, we’re finally heading into a year of abnormally cool temperatures in the sections of the Pacific Ocean, called a “La Nina” period. In years where this has happened, seasonal snowfalls have trended back toward average numbers, with below-average temperatures. Now, a small caveat here is that sometimes the eastern mountains haven’t gotten as big a slice of the pie as they’re normally due during these seasons, but the colder-than-average temperatures will make up for it because of the ever-increasing technology and efficiency of the snow-making equipment.
Think somewhere around 120″- 180″ of snow, and then the groomers handling the rest.
One last thing to note: Most of the past years that have similar trajectories to this one have featured at least one decent “snowstorm” event and one good arctic blast of cold air. While most commuters will groan at the thought, the folks heading to the mountains with skis in tow will surely shout, “bring it on!”
In what has been a crazy year with COVID and the election, many are ready to flock to the Southeast United States to do some skiing and enjoy some fresh powder. But will there be any?
When doing a seasonal forecast, many global trends need to be factored in, and one of the most important is the ongoing La Niña. La Niña is a cooling of the Pacific waters and is one of the primary reasons the 2020 hurricane season has been so active. But what does that do to the SE United States during the winter?
On average, a strong La Niña will keep temps well above normal for the winter months. In fact, for this season, temperatures may run on average 3 degrees above normal. Does that mean it won’t get cold? No, of course there may be cold stretches, but what it is saying is if you average over the entire season it will likely be above normal. The other aspect that La Niña brings is below normal precipitation to the region. Again, not that there can’t be a big storm, but overall precipitation will be below normal for the winter season.
There are times where I hope the forecast is wrong, and this is one of them. One other indicator does show that there could be perhaps an early winter cool down around the holidays. Let’s hope so, because that would be a nice start to the season.
You’ve heard that La Nina is a big driver of the forecast and maybe you’ve heard things about the other elements that long rage forecasters look for in a seasonal forecast and the prevailing wisdom is “warmer and wetter.”
What the prevailing wisdom doesn’t talk about is the ski industry’s investment in the best snow making gear and the ability to “hold onto” that snowpack once you build a base. Models don’t take that into account! You refrigerate a snow pack then build on it nightly with the machines, and you can keep skiing and snowboarding a long time! Plus, the elevation of the resorts helps as we know. Quite often we can see 40s and even 50s in Charleston when it’s more than cold enough to make snow or even have natural snow falling up above 3,500 feet.
I think November shows us the temperature scenario we will see at least for the early part of the season. Yes, there have been warm spells, but the overall temperature will come down. Some December projections I have seen show about a degree to almost two degrees warmer than normal weather expected for December. What’s interesting is that the same projections call for higher than average precipitation amounts especially from the Midwest areas from Wisconsin and Illinois across Ohio and continuing into West Virginia. You will see maps that show the WV mountains with about average precip. As long as the nights are cold, the snow machines can do their thing and we most likely get the occasional assist from Nature.
What ski fanatics want to root for is a “blocking” weather feature up around Greenland that really roadblocks some cold Canadian air in this region. January and February are always good for at least one of those cold snaps if not two.
So, while I think we may not reach the average natural snow amount, I am not too worried overall about seeing green ski runs at all. The industry can kick out a TON of snow even in this setup and I truly feel Nature will chip in enough to keep it interesting and fun over the December – February 90 day period.
My call is for several inches less than normal snowfall on the season total, but I feel this will be easily covered by the great investments made by the resorts to crank out FEET of snow on top of the natural base for a full season of activity.
As I do every year when I start to put together my winter forecast, I look at the state of the water temperatures in the tropical latitudes of the Pacific Ocean. The oceans hold 1000 times the potential energy of the atmosphere, so if there is a temperature anomaly in those waters, the amount of energy that gets transferred to the overlying atmosphere can vary quite dramatically.
That transfer, whether the waters are cooler than normal (La Nina) or warmer than normal (El Nino) can have a significant impact on the nature of weather systems downwind…over the United States.
Currently, a La Nina has developed, and typically, that means potential trouble for ski resorts in the central and southern Appalachians. Why? Well, in La Nina winters, the two most persistent jet stream features are a trough over the northwestern quarter of the country and a ridge over the southeastern quadrant. Now, those features vary in strength through the winter, but overall, the influence of the southeastern ridge leads to a milder than normal season with snowfall harder to come by. The trough does send occasional cold shots into the Appalachians from Canada, so there will be powder days and snowmaking opportunities, but the most favored storm track runs up along or west of the mountains, which puts the resorts on the milder side of those storms more often than we would like.
There is one factor that offers some hope for the season…the 11-year solar cycle. We reached “solar minimum” earlier in 2020, when the output of sunspots and other solar disturbances were at their weakest in the past 5-6 years. Activity on the surface of the sun is now slowly picking up as we head toward solar “max” around 2025. How does this impact the ski season? Well, for reasons that aren’t fully understood, La Nina winters in the eastern U.S. at the time of solar minimum tend to be dominated a little more by the trough than by the southeast ridge, resulting in a cooler winter with more opportunities for snow than during other points in the solar cycle during a La Nina.
So, overall, I feel that the season will be quite variable as the two jet features fight it out for supremacy, but there will be spells when conditions are very nice and natural snow is available. I feel more strongly about this in the northern portions of Virginia and in West Virginia. Further south, my concern is that the ridge will be in control too much of the time. In short, you will have to pick your spots for great snow this winter, but those windows will be there for you.
Well there you have it, sounds like a well variable season on the horizon, as it looks like when it’s right, you better make those turns. 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. But we can do this if we all just work together. Remember, Mother Nature provides the best social distancing these days.