Sun sets on snow?

El Niño could hurt mid-winter snowfall

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Sunsets like this could be the norm this month and January, when a strong El Niño weather pattern is expected to decrease the amount of precipitation for much of Colorado. This photo was taken west of Steamboat Springs off Routt County Road 33 on Wednesday.

— The El Niño weather phenomenon could mean Steamboat Springs won't come close to experiencing the abundance of snow that fell over the city and ski area in December 2005 and January 2006, a leading climate researcher said Wednesday.

However, Steamboat has a better chance than most places in Colorado Ski Country to snag a storm or two during the subtropical jet stream over the next two months, said Klaus Wolter, a scientist with the University of Colorado and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By late February, the Steamboat Ski Area could see a return to heavy precipitation patterns that should continue to deliver through March and into April.

"Things could be a little boring for the next four to six weeks," Wolter said Wednesday.

Snow fell over Steamboat during 21 of the 31 days in December 2005.

"The good thing about Steamboat is that when you look at the topography, you do pretty well with storms from the southwest," Wolter said. "Steamboat, compared to Summit County, does better" with a southwesterly flow.

When Steamboat benefited from snowstorms of 48 inches and 36 inches during late November and early December 2005, the generator of that moisture was the typical northwesterly flow that delivers most of the powerful storms that bump into Mount Werner and the Rabbit Ears Range, Wolter said.

If Steamboat is to reap any snow from the subtropical jet stream this month and in January, the storms probably will be of relatively short duration and produce wetter snow, Wolter said.

This year, the mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean known as El Niño is messing with Steamboat's climate, as it did in the winters of 2002-03 and 1991-92.

Most people, when they envision the jet stream, picture a single stream of air. But there are actually two streams - the northern jet and the subtropical jet, Wolter said. El Niño widens the split between the two streams, pushing the northern jet, which usually drives Steamboat's mid-winter snow, into Canada.

Wolter said his long-range forecasting models show that much of Colorado will be drier that average during the middle of the winter.

"It's a tough call," he said. "You know what it is when it happens. In 2002-03, most of Colorado was very dry in December and January."

Steamboat actually did pretty well in December 2002 - the Steamboat Ski Area recorded 69 inches of snow at mid-mountain and finished with 344 inches for the season - 40 inches above the seasonal average. The winter of 1991-92 was a different story. After receiving 31.25 inches of snow in November and 28.5 in December, the ski area received nearly 100 inches in January and February combined. A sub-par March 2003 left Steamboat with 210 inches of snow for the season that year - less than half of the bonanza the ski area experienced in 2005-06.

Wolter doesn't foresee a wimpy month in March 2007.

"The good news is that El Niño started late this year and is getting stronger and stronger," he said. "That's good for us. It's thumbs-up for late February and March. It could be a repeat of March 2003."

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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