Snowstorms likely to strike

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— Steamboat Springs is on the verge of its first significant winter weather flow pattern of the year, the National Weather Service reported Wednesday.

"We're looking at the jet stream taking a more southerly path that will drag more storms into our area," NWS meteorologist Jim Pringle said. "There is a whole series of storms stacked up starting late (today). Some will be rather weak, but some will be big moisture generators."

Temperatures over the next five days are also expected to be cold enough that the storms will produce snow rather than rain above 6,000 feet.

The speed of prevailing westerly winds means that the storm systems won't linger over the Yampa Valley, Pringle said, but there are enough of them that the departure of one storm may be followed by the next within six hours.

At the same time the pattern of natural snowstorms was shaping up, snowmaking crews at the Steamboat Ski Area had their most productive session of the autumn just before dawn on Wednesday. Snowmakers pumped 2.2 million gallons of water through the snowmaking guns beginning at 5:30 a.m.

Steamboat was originally scheduled to open Wednesday. But scarce natural snow and warm temperatures that rendered snowmaking only marginally effective forced a postponement to Nov. 30.

Steamboat Director of Mountain Operations Doug Allen praised his crews for maximizing the opportunity early Wednesday morning when conditions became ideal for snowmaking. It's difficult to translate the 2.2 million gallons of water into snow volume Allen said, because the output of the guns varies with temperature, humidity and the type of snowmaking apparatus in use.

Pringle is predicting Steamboat could see significant snowfall tonight and into Friday, followed by a lull on Saturday. Then on Sunday, Pringle foresees the arrival of a "very significant moisture producing system."

Pringle sees the storm pattern persisting throughout the coming week.

He said some portions of the Colorado Rockies will probably see almost continuous snow, but the localized areas that get the heaviest snow will depend on the northwest flow of air.

"Some mountain areas will get hammered continuously," Pringle said. "The town of Steamboat Springs can see a northwest flow that generates total snowfall events that are extremely productive."

Pringle isn't necessarily predicting "extremely productive snowfall events" for Steamboat next week. That will depend on whether the Yampa Valley is in the pattern of northwest air flow. Typically, Pringle said a storm front is preceded by a southwest flow, with the northwest flow settling in as the main trough as the low pressure system arrives.

Allen said on clear, cold nights like Tuesday night into Wednesday, snowmaking crews work from the bottom of the mountain up to take advantage of the coldest air at the bottom of the mountain. The arrival of storms could break up the inversion, shifting the snowmakers' focus further up the mountain.

Ski area spokeswoman Cathy Wiedemer said although the focus this week is on artificial snow coverage that will allow skiers to cruise from the top of the gondola to the base, snowmaking equipment is in position on upper trails. As soon as conditions permit, trails like Buddy's Run, Rudy's Run and Lightning will get attention from the snowmakers.

Pringle cautioned that the first big winter weather events of the year often catch motorists and back country enthusiasts by surprise. People who leave for a mountain snowshoe or ski during clear morning conditions should be prepared for a sudden change in the weather, he said. And holiday travelers should monitor weather forecasts frequently, because of the rapid movement of the storm systems.

"It's just a matter of six hours difference," Pringle said. "That could make the difference between having an enjoyable time or a miserable time."

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