WHAT THE EXPERTS THINK, written and 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 29 degrees. That means the snow guns are probably operating at the higher elevations throughout the southeast region.
It’s been a great week for snowmaking and as expected there were resort openings for skiing and snowboarding in North Carolina as Appy, Sugar and Cataloochee have dropped the ropes. Don’t look now but the season is here folks.
Like I have done since starting this column 18 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:
Tony Edwards, a meteorologist at Charleston, West Virginia’s National Weather Service Office
Here is what Tony is forecasting for this year:
For the third winter in a row, water temperatures across the central Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal. We call this La Nina, and it is likely to be one of the main influences on our winter weather patterns once again this winter.
A typical La Nina pattern across North America features a jet stream that dives down into the Upper Midwest, but then curves northeastward into New England. This results in a tendency for storms to track up the Ohio Valley bringing wetter than normal conditions to the west side of the Appalachians. This storm track also tends to keep colder air masses bottled up across western Canada and the northern Plains. The official NOAA Winter Outlook follows this pattern closely with the expectation of above normal temperatures across the central and southern Appalachians, with either wetter than normal or normal precipitation favored.
While NOAA doesn’t issue a seasonal snowfall forecast, we can look back at past La Nina winters to get some insight into how much snow we will potentially get this upcoming winter. Unfortunately, snowfall tends to be average to below average during La Nina winters over the central and southern Appalachians with the heavier snows occurring over the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest and New England. But don’t despair! Several past La Nina winters have featured some big snows. The month of December 2010 was 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 at Snowshoe!
Doug Harlow, Chief Meteorologist of WCHS-TV in Charleston, West Virginia
Let’s hear from another, West Virginia Mountain forecaster:
At first glance it would appear to be a case of deja vu this winter for area ski resorts…since the general weather pattern hasn’t changed. We’re currently in the midst of one of the longest running continuous La Nina (cooler than average east-equatorial Pacific Ocean waters) on record.
This is a pattern that was in place for the Winter of 2020-21 and 2021-22. However, those Winters didn’t play out the same. The former started off promising with a cold and snowy December but trended warmer with less snow into January and February. Last Winter started off slow with a very warm, almost snowless December…but ramped up after the New Year with some healthy snows and arctic air blasts.
We’re likely to see the same temperature swings and snow surpluses and droughts this year…with some weeks being banner ski weeks and others not as good.
We’ve had an early start to winter this November with a very cold second half…but there are suggestions temperatures will trend milder into December. After that, however, I would expect 1-2 week cold snaps with some lake effect snows for the West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland resorts that should make for some decent conditions in parts of January and February.
Skiers will want to keep an eye on the longer range forecasts to keep abreast of these 1-2 week banner periods.
Brandon Butcher, Meteorologist of WSAZ-TV in Charleston/Huntington, West Virginia
Let’s hear from another, West Virginia Mountain forecaster, Brandon Butcher.
We’re poised to enter our third La Nina winter in a row, and that’s only happened three other times in recorded history (which admittedly doesn’t nearly go back far enough for such a statement be as dramatic as it sounds). For a quick review, “La Nina” refers to cooler than average temperatures in the South Pacific, which like the ‘butterfly effect,’ initially nudges our weather pattern in a certain direction that often put its thumb on the scale for an entire ‘season’ worth of weather — which is why it’s worth paying attention to. Anyway, the long and short of it is usually that third year is a bit of a muted year as far as typical La Nina’s go, and though it usually supplies us with the cooler-than-average temperatures, the actual storm systems themselves either miss us to the north or come in with the threat of the dreaded ‘ice’ as well as snow.
What’s great for the ski slopes in our area, is that they’ve already been well evolved to a world where they need to give Nature an assist when the flakes aren’t flying but the temperatures are suitable. We already saw this in spades in mid-November when temperatures hit the 20s for days on-end. [ I’m expecting all the ski slopes to start off on-time with a bevy of man-made snow under ideal conditions for it]. This great start will probably get challenged in December though, as we’ve had the temperature-pendulum swing violently between hot and cold this fall. No one wants to see that early pack of November snow become a ‘questionable’ granular during the Christmas season, but we’ve had some years where the swing comes back cold again just in time for Christmas. We’ll have to see how this plays out.
As long as we can make it through that low-spot, we should be good to go in the typically cold-enough January and February time-frames. And even though climate change has shown that gradual warming trend in the winter, often it’s just taken the edge off the extreme cold in the mountains while leaving the afternoons still in a decent enough range to make snow, for now anyway. The potential exists in March to again catch a cold spell that can extend the season a bit further (with man-made snow if need-be), but the folks that mind the slopes will be quick on the draw if the pendulum swings the other way.
Dave Osterberg, Morning Meteorologist for FOX13, WTVT-TV in Tampa, Florida
La Nina is a cooling of the Eastern Pacific waters, and basically the opposite of an El Nino, which most people have heard more about. It tends to change the global wind patterns, which tend to alter the winter pattern around the United States. La Nina tends to bring warmer than normal temperatures, and below normal precipitation in the southeast United States. But it’s not as easy as a blanket statement like that.
Last winter saw a very warm December, a cold and snowy January, and a mild February. Overall region wide, the temperatures were about 3° above average for the winter, with snowfall and precipitation in general slightly below normal. The problem with La Nina’s is no two are alike. The climate models are calling for a weak to moderate La Nina this winter. If it’s the latter, moderate La Ninas tend to produce warmer temperatures, and freezes tend to be fewer in the South. Overall precipitation also tends to be about 25% lower than the long-term average.
Does this mean no big snowstorms? Absolutely not! All this means is if you average out the winter temps and precipitation, it will overall be warmer and drier. Big arctic outbreaks and snowstorms can occur in a La Nina, so there is hope. One good, cold arctic outbreak could be enough to make a nice base on the mountains to help sustain for the warmer spells this winter.
Another note of good news is that as far as we know there have never been four La Nina winters in a row, so next winter season will hopefully bring snow and temps back to normal, or maybe above?
So, overall expect a similar winter to the past two years, but there will still be snow and cold snaps to enjoy!
Joe Fitzwater, Chief Meteorologist for WVNS-TV in Beckley, West Virginia
For a third season in a row, a La Nina pattern will be the ENSO climate pattern in place, with a 76 percent chance of continuing through winter according to forecasters, as below-normal sea surface temperatures continue to be recorded in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
This pattern suggests a wet pattern for the Ohio River Valley. This is due to weather systems crossing through this area a bit more actively with the jet stream nearby. Conversely, the southeastern part of the U.S. is usually drier than average. From a temperature standpoint, the Appalachians through the southeastern and middle Atlantic are typically slightly above average.
This does not mean that snow lovers should necessarily be concerned though – a brilliantly cold start to November has already allowed many ski resorts to get ahead of the game with their snow making in combination with some natural help from Mother Nature. Though the 2020-2021 season resulted in below average snowfall production in many spots, we did see some decent snowmaking around during the 2021-2022 season and I expect that we will have our opportunities for a handful of accumulating snows once again with an active setup being favored. Though on average, seasonal snow totals are below average with La Nina in place, we have experienced some great snowy seasons in La Nina occasionally – the 2010/2011 winter season comes to mind for the central Appalachians.
La Nina is expected to weaken during the late winter into early spring and that could make our pattern a little less active. Overall, I expect near normal to slightly below normal snowfall production – but still enough of an active setup at times this winter to keep the snow lovers happy!
Spencer Adkins, Chief Meteorologist, WOWK-TV, Huntington, West Virginia
I am glad I waited a little bit to look into snow forecasts for the high terrain of West Virginia. Just one week ago we were sitting with temperatures in the 70s, lots of brown grassy slopes, and snow sports enthusiasts pacing nervously, checking out the latest weather info.
Fast forward one week and we have snow on the ground at some resorts, some natural and some man made. Lows have been running consistently in the 20s and teens and the “snow guns” have been cranking out some really nice base.
That said, the NOAA forecast was truly for some 50-50 conditions in our overall region. There really is not a stronger than normal signal one way or the other in terms of influences on our region for the winter. Yes, La Nina is back for yet another engagement. However, there are some subtle differences in various ocean temperature scenarios, which is also normal. We’ve discovered that not all La Ninas are the same and El Nino patterns can have multiple variations as well.
Full admission: I am not a huge teleconnection forecasting expert. My forte lies in 7 day forecasts. That said, I have always been a fan of looking at the broader pattern in late October and early November for clues as to what we will likely see. The last few years, I’ve seen the pattern this time of year get really repetitive, well into April. It’s called the Pacific North American pattern, or PNA. When PNA is positive, the cold air cranks down from Canada into our area. When PNA is negative, the cold air shoves down into the western U.S. This is a repetitive PNA+ pattern I see coming.
So far, we have seen the trough of lower pressure and colder air set up shop, leaving us under the influence of the cold air dome that sort of “oozes in” from Canada behind cold fronts at least three times in the past few weeks. We had one of those southern systems that could have been a big snow maker if this had been January or February.
My gut tells me we will have a couple (let’s say two minimum) southern snow makers that will add healthy amounts at the ski resorts in January and February. The rest will come with the regular kind of snow that spreads in from the west along or just behind a cold front followed by the lake enhanced streamer bands off of the Great Lakes on the northwest fetch of air. The difference for the ski resorts is, you get a much more efficient production of snow from a smaller amount of moisture than you would somewhere else like a Charleston or Roanoke. Those occasional snow storms in D.C. and Charlotte usually have the wetter snow that compacts and is heavy to shovel. Ski resort snow in West Virginia is normally light and fluffy with the “needle-y” kind of flake formation. Basically: good skiing powder.
To me: Nature has shown us enough cards in her hand to say that trough/cold air dome will be the main feature this winter with plenty of snow. Hitting the normals shouldn’t be a problem in terms of inches of snow. I see Snowshoe listed in a few places as normally seeing 150 inches of snow. In my book, there’s no reason we can’t see that much once again. Add in the super-efficient snow making capacity there and at other resorts, and you’re looking at plenty of time to get out on the slopes and carve it up.
I’m sure we’ll also have 1-2 short warm spells when the doom and gloomers think ski season is done, but until the overall La Nina loosens its grip, that “trough in the east” is the snow enthusiast’s friend. Enjoy and be safe out there!
Herb Stevens, the Skiing Weatherman
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:
The winter of 2022-2023 will once again be dominated by the influences of La Nina in the Pacific Ocean. This will be the third consecutive winter when a La Nina is in place in the waters of the equatorial Pacific, meaning those waters will be colder than their long terms averages. This is only the third time since La Nina…and its sibling El Nino…were discovered back in the 1950’s that the phenomenon has occurred three years in a row. A significant anomaly in water temperatures can make a big difference in the weather downstream, given that the oceans contain ten TIMES the energy of the overlying atmosphere, making it possible to impact the flow of air around the globe at all levels.
Now, all La Ninas are not alike but there are certain correlations that have been identified through the years between La Ninas and the winter weather that they regionally favor. The central and southern Appalachians spend much of those winters in a battle zone between an upper level ridge that sits over the Southeast that supports mild air and periodically forces its way to the north. The other jet stream feature involved in the fight is a cold upper level trough that spends a good deal of time over the northern Plains and Great Lakes. Sometimes the ridge wins and mild weather dominates and sometimes the trough dominates and delivers a fresh Canadian air mass. During the transitions, we often see storms that bring the bulk of the season’s precipitation, often in a variety of forms.
Traditionally, La Ninas are known for their dramatic variability and that is what I believe is on the way this year. It will be a back and forth season, with periods of favorable snowmaking conditions, fresh snow, and powdery surfaces, along with intrusions of milder air and surfaces that are more moist. Overall, I believe that the season will be a degree or two milder than normal, with snowfall a little below normal. One other note on three year La Ninas…two of the previous three featured a fast start to the season, and it appears as though we are on our way to three out of four. A good percentage of the snowfall this winter will come in significant storms…when you see one of those coming, pack up the car and head for the hills!
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 as usual challenging.