How low will it go?

Mild El Niño should have little effect on Steamboat's winter

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The National Weather Service forecast for Steamboat Springs called for snow Friday and today, raising the question of whether October snow can persist until ski season, and making snow-lovers wonder how deep the stuff will get this winter.

History indicates that October snow on Mount Werner can last until the gondola opens for the season, but it's really November snow that seals the deal. Ski area managers would just as soon see overnight temperatures in the teens to allow snowmaking in October.

The wild card in this winter's weather outlook is a weak El Niño system that is setting up in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

John McGee, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., said Friday that he doesn't think this winter's El Niño will have a significant effect on the weather in Northwest Colorado. Expect temperatures that are slightly higher than usual and average precipitation, he said.

Average season snowfall on Mount Werner equates to a healthy 332 inches at mid-mountain.

The storm that hit Steamboat on Friday afternoon was produced by the northern jet stream camping right over the Yampa Valley and bringing the first true winter weather system of the year. McGee predicted another such storm would enter the area Thursday. However, he said, by mid-November the El Niño, which is a warming of the ocean off the coast of South America, could bring changes to the region.

The mild El Niño could split the jet stream, causing the polar flow to remain north of Colorado until dipping down into the upper Midwest. A very wet, southern jet stream would cause above average moisture in California this winter, McGee said, but wouldn't affect Northwest Colorado.

Steamboat opens for the season Nov. 24. Opening day fluctuates from year to year with the Thanksgiving holiday, as Steamboat plans to open for its traditional Scholarship Day to benefit the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports.

A blast of winter weather during the second week in November has been known to cause the ski area to advance its opening by four or five days, as it did in 2002 when Steamboat received 3 feet of snow in two weeks. Winter settled into the Yampa Valley in earnest about Oct. 28 that year.

The November weather can cut the other way, too. In 2001, Steamboat announced Nov. 13 that it would delay its opening after two weeks of mild weather stymied snowmaking operations and there was nothing to measure at mid-mountain. Ironically, the snow began to fall as soon as the decision was made.

Things can begin to change quickly in Steamboat around Thanksgiving and by Nov. 28, 2001, the ski area was looking at 4 feet of fresh snow and officials announced it would open with 1,200 acres of terrain including the Priest Creek trees.

Does a snowy November bode well for a winter full of powder days? Sometimes, but not always. A look at historical snow figures shows that Steamboat's biggest snow winters in the past 23 years have started with heavy snowfall in November.

November 2003, with 74 inches of early powder, was the second snowiest since 1981, but the final snowfall total of 294.75 inches was below the average of 332 inches. The snowiest November on record was in 1996, when the ski area collected 78 inches and went on to the all-time season record of 447.75 inches, eclipsing the winter of 1983-84 by a quarter-inch.

The average November snowfall is 31.3 inches. In 1983-84, Steamboat started with 55.25 inches of snow in November and finished with 447.5. That was the winter of 40 days and 40 nights of continuous snow in November and December.

However, the very next winter Steamboat began with 61 inches of snow in November and finished with a sub-par 288.25 inches.

In recent winters, January has been the decisive month.

Steamboat has surpassed annual snowfall of 300 inches once in the past five years in 1999/2000, when 369 inches fell. January snowfall in 2000 totaled 119 inches. Since then, January has been a disappointment with 47 inches in 2001, 71.5 in 2002, 43.5 in 2003 and 44 inches in 2004. Average snowfall at mid-mountain in January, according to Ski Corp. statistics, is 82.68 inches. The record was set in 1996, when a remarkable 216.5 inches of snow fell in January.

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