Avid skiers, sit down – could 2020 bring any more bad news?
Yes, of course: The Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 75% chance of a La Niña winter forming from December through February.
La Niña winters typically bring below-average snowpacks to the mountains of Southwest Colorado.
“When you get north of 70%, a La Niña is likely,” said Michelle L’Heureux, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center who worked on the group’s forecast.
“So, we’re anticipating it will be unfolding, but there’s a 25% chance that it won’t form,” she said. “So I wouldn’t rule out having average or even above-average snowpack. It’s just that right now, with what we’re seeing, that looks unlikely,”
L’Heureux offered other details about La Niñas that offer some glimmer of hope to skiers.
Southwest Colorado is at the northern extremity of where La Niñas cause declines in snowpacks, with the mountains of New Mexico more likely to be impacted by a dry winter than the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.
Also, the Climate Prediction Center expects La Niña to form only from December through February, and L’Heureux noted the biggest snow month in Colorado is typically March and that most snow falls in late winter and early spring in the state.
“By the time you get into spring by March, April and May, we’re actually slightly favoring a neutral outlook. So we don’t anticipate a long-lasting drying event that would stretch well into next year,” L’Heureux said.
La Niña, Spanish for little girl, is a natural atmospheric phenomenon marked by cooler-than-average surface sea temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. It is the climatological opposite of El Niño, Spanish for little boy, a climatological pattern that favors above-average snowpack in Southwest Colorado.
Colorado is right on the extreme northern edge of being affected by both La Niña and El Niño patterns, and La Niña actually brings colder winters with more snow to the northern United States.
There is a small chance a La Niña might bring above-average snowfall to the northern mountains of Colorado, L’Heureux said.
“Colorado is kind of right on the border where La Niña favors a wetter part in the north of the hemisphere and a drier part in the southern part of the hemisphere,” she said.
L’Heureux also offered another sliver of good news – everyone should keep in mind that there’s a 25% chance a La Niña pattern will fail to form at all this winter.
The 25% chance of a failed La Niña pattern was a point reinforced by Roseanne Pitcher, co-owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, which is known to get the most snow of any ski area in Colorado.
“I don’t think you can make a judgment call at this point because what they’re looking at is what’s happening right now in September. Their model can change as we get closer to winter. We’ve still got most of September, October and November before we really get to winter, and I think if you look back, these forecasts change as they get more information,” Pitcher said.
With the Pitcher family owning and operating Wolf Creek Ski Area since the mid-1980s, Pitcher said one thing she has learned is that weather and climate are unpredictable – with no guarantee you always get what is in the forecast.
“We just had a 15-inch snowstorm at Wolf Creek that came out of nowhere. You know, all of a sudden it was on the radar. Nobody was forecasting that in August or even in early September. So, I really think people have to be patient and just wait to see how winter unfolds,” she said.