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Early-season snow predictions: take ‘em with a chunk of road salt
Looks like we're in for a strong El Niño, but long-range winter forecasts are always clouded with uncertainty.
If I could accurately predict what kind of winter we’re heading into, I might be richer than Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha. Maybe I’d start my own foundation—The Gnar Charitable Trust?—and give away gobs of money rather than seek grants.
Alas, neither I nor anyone else can reliably and consistently paint a detailed portrait of what kind of snow season we should expect many months into the future. But that doesn’t stop people from trying!
Here in Colorado, where snow is central to many people’s lives and livelihoods, the early-season predictions start floating around in fall, even before the first flakes drop on the highest peaks.
Below, I’ve pulled together a roundup of some recent coverage of the outlook across the West. However, I’ll tell you upfront that it’s hard for me to put much stock in long-term winter projections for Colorado made in September or October, not only because they’ve been so wrong so often in my 15 years of living here, but also because scientists stress how our predictive abilities sink as we look ahead weeks to months, regardless of location.
“I think out beyond the two-week forecast window that most meteorological services are aiming for, the future weather conditions are extremely uncertain, and we have very little predictive skill in forecasting that,” said Noah Molotch, a snow expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, in an interview last week (see my 2020 podcast interview with Noah for more insights about snow.)
Going into this winter, the big story is El Niño, which is characterized by warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures across parts of the equatorial Pacific, as shown below.
In the United States, El Niño tends to bring wetter weather to southern areas and drier/warmer conditions to northern parts of the country, as shown below.
Here’s Molotch’s take on El Niño’s potential impact:
In Colorado, it actually doesn't really have any statistical significance for most of the state other than in the southern part of the state . . . But it isn't a strong predictor. So if you're in the area in the northern tier, let's say in the Tetons in Wyoming, then just because we're headed into an El Niño condition doesn't mean that it's going to be a bad snow year. It just means that there's a greater chance of below-normal precipitation than there is a chance of above-normal precipitation. But there's lots of anomalies. Last year is a great example of that. We were in a moderate La Niña condition last year, which would typically mean that California would have a greater chance of below-normal precipitation or snowfall. And they had what may actually be the largest snow year in history, certainly in the top five.
The Climate Prediction Center issues national outlooks for temperature and precipitation up to three months in advance and a dedicated winter outlook, though the long-range maps are painted with a broad brush. Below is a set of the most recent (October 19) maps for precipitation and temperature.
Beware of almanacs with secret formulas!
Federal outlooks are one thing, but then there are publications like the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the separate Farmers’ Almanac, which receive plenty of media attention but are pseudo-scientific at best.
A 2022 Popular Mechanics story surveyed the accuracy of these publications and concluded they’re “mostly full of crap” and “more or less the equivalent of throwing a dart at a board full of meteorology terms.”
Below is this winter’s map from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which says it’ll be “cold, snowy” across much of the country. Thanks for the info!
The Old Farmer’s Almanac says its forecast is based on a “secret weather formula” created more than two centuries ago by its founder, Robert B. Thomas, who “believed the Earth’s weather was influenced by sunspots, which are magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun, and this factored heavily in his forecasts.”
Whatever the link between sunspots and weather on Earth, there’s no way to know what data the Old Farmers’ Almanac uses and how. As weather writer Dennis Mersereau argued in a 2015 piece for The Vane, “The Old Farmer’s Almanac is to meteorology what astrology is to astronomy.”
According to a 2020 story in Discover Magazine, “a 1981 study compared five years’ worth of Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions to the recorded conditions in cities across the almanac’s sixteen regions, and found that the forecast was about fifty percent accurate — no better than random chance.”
Below is the winter outlook from the competing Farmers’ Almanac, which has its own secret formula from 1818 that relies on “studying sunspot cycles, solar activity, tidal forces, and even the reversal of winds in the stratosphere over the equator,” as well as “the position of the planets” and “the influence of our celestial companion, the Moon.”
Isn’t it amazing how the weather patterns line up exactly with the state boundaries!? At least you know that California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah will experience “Wintry Temps, Seasonably Stormy.” In other news, expect to see a large glowing orb known as the sun rising in the east this winter and setting in the west.
Roundup of early-season predictions for winter
Below are links to some recent coverage of early-season outlooks and predictions, with some excerpts I found interesting:
A warm, wet El Niño winter is in store for California and much of the U.S. By Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2023.
“It’s important to stress that even though we see these general patterns during El Niño and La Niña years, there is still a lot of variability and not every event is going to follow the general pattern,” Julie Kalansky, a climate scientist at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said in a recent El Niño update.”
As El Niño looms, California braces for storms and floods, By Scott Dance and Diana Leonard, The Washington Post, October 13, 2023.
“Though it’s clear El Niño is building — and could become one of the strongest ever observed — climate scientists and meteorologists said it’s too soon to know how it will influence weather in California and across the United States. While the 1997-1998 iteration of El Niño brought disaster, a more recent super El Niño in winter 2015-2016, for example, created unexpectedly drier conditions.”
California just experienced a ‘miracle’ water year. But winter could bring new challenges. Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2023.
Quoting Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis: “‘Our discussions about water tend to be a little fickle,’ Lund said. ‘If it’s a dry year, we’ll talk about drought, or if it’s a wet year, we have these problems with floods. But really, we need to worry about both in any year and every year.’”
“And while winter looks potentially wet, the state is also contending with warming conditions that could further sap supplies. June, July and August marked the warmest summer on record for the Northern Hemisphere, while September broke global heat records by a large margin.”
US winter forecast for the 2023-2024 season. AccuWeather, October 4, 2023.
“The upcoming season does look like it will follow the traditional El Niño pattern with the jet stream directing storms into California, Nevada and the Four Corners. This differs from the El Niño of 2015-2016 when storms largely avoided California.”
“Excellent ski conditions are expected in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico for the second year in a row; however, snowfall totals may not reach the benchmarks from last season.”
It’s Hard to Predict What the Coming El Niño Will Bring, Rober Krier, Voice of San Diego, September 29, 2023.
“El Niño, once feared and nearly revered, has lost cachet. It poses the threat of massive, damaging storms in California and also the potential to quickly wipe out severe drought. But this periodically recurring atmospheric phenomenon in recent years has become just too unreliable to count on.”
What does El Niño mean for the upcoming ski season? By Dennis Romboy, Deseret News, September 28, 2023.
“In his long-range forecast, meteorologist Chris Tomer says the data suggests a drier than normal winter for most of the West, according to OnTheSnow. But it could still be a big winter for resorts around Lake Tahoe and Mammoth and in Colorado. Tomer predicts a wetter than normal winter for the East, where most New England ski areas could see above-normal snowfall.”
After a wet year, can Colorado hope for a repeat? Not quite, experts say. Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun, September 27, 2023.
Quoting Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist: “If I’m gonna hedge my bets, it’s more likely that we’ll get more snow on the plains and in southern Colorado, and it would be more likely that we would start to see that drought that’s currently there improving rather than getting worse.”
With a Strong El Niño Now Very Likely, What Should We Expect? Tom Yulsman, Discover Magazine, September 19, 2023.
“Will this coming winter bring impacts like the ones we saw during the very strong El Niño of 2015/2016? Only time will tell, of course. But there is one factor to keep an eye on: that record-setting heat across most of the world's oceans. Previous El Niños haven't occurred concurrently with conditions looking anything like this.”
2023-2024 Colorado Winter Forecast Preview, Sam Collentine, opensnow.com, August 29, 2023.
“Overall, history tells us that Colorado tends to be right around average for snowfall during El Niño winters, with the potential for a stronger start and end to the season.”
“Sometimes, longer-range forecasts can identify possible storms 1-2 weeks (or longer) in advance, but often, forecast confidence in the details of each storm only begins to increase when the system is about one week away or closer.”
Embrace the uncertainty
Here in southwest Colorado, many people follow the Durango Weather Guy, who wrote on September 5, “I have been on record since late spring saying we would have a late start to winter and it would evolve into well below normal temperatures and above average snowfall, especially in the lower elevations.”
Another local data point: while on a wilderness rafting trip this summer on northern New Mexico’s Rio Chama, one of our guides pointed out the proliferation of termite hills on the shore. He claimed that’s a sign it will be a wet and snowy winter in the area.
Based on everything I’ve read and heard over the past few months, many people say the odds are tilted toward an above-average snow season here in southwest Colorado. I root for snow, so I hope that’s true, but I’m not exactly an eternal optimist. So, for the 15th year in a row, I’m going into winter with subpar expectations and bracing for the worst, but that’s just my personality.
I’ll continue to gobble up predictions and get excited by animated GIFs of weather models projecting a kaleidoscope of colors blossoming on precipitation maps with the arrival of an atmospheric river.
I’ll anxiously read forecasters hemming, hawing, hedging, and covering their behinds, plus plenty of ex post facto rationalizations when their bets don’t pan out. But I’ll also be continually impressed by how much they can say about the weather that’s transpiring now and what’s expected over the next few days, even in a region with such complex topography.
Perhaps scientific research, new technologies, artificial intelligence, and other innovations will eventually make longer-range winter forecasts more skillful. It sure would be helpful for travel plans and scheduling snow days. But at least for me, part of the excitement of winter is the unavoidable uncertainty about what weather is on the way.