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Steamboat Springs If the height of false-hellebore accurately predicts the ferocity of winter in Steamboat Springs, skiers are in for a big disappointment this year.
“Of course with the drought, it didn't come up this season,” longtime Routt County rancher Jo Stanko said Sunday about the plant some ranchers use to try and predict the abundance of snowfall. “I'm hoping that's not predictive of a light winter.”
This time of year, ranchers also take note of how thick the coats of their horses and dogs are to get a sense of how cold it's going to get.
But the winter fortune-telling is more fun than science, Stanko said.
And sometimes, the plants and fur coats are way wrong.
The false-hellebore was a healthy height before winter started last year. But the 2011-12 winter season disappointed, and the ski area limped to Closing Day.
“Some of the things ranchers look at have a basis in science, but they're more of a predictor of the weather we're having now, not the weather we're going to get,” Stanko said.
Joe Ramey, a meteorologist and climate expert at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, has heard of the many ways others attempt to predict the weather.
A cooperative weather observer in Mexican Hat, Utah, recently told Ramey that he thinks the abundance of Pinon nuts on nearby trees are signaling a strong winter.
But when Ramey goes in front of the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop next month with an early winter forecast, his predictions will be based on the temperature changes in the Pacific Ocean, specifically off the coast of Peru.
And his report isn't good for Steamboat.
El Niño returns
Ramey is predicting the return of a weak El Niño this year, a climate pattern that typically has major winter storms track south of Interstate 70 and favor the San Juan Mountains.
“I would suggest (skiers) take full advantage of the powder days and not take them for granted this season,” Ramey said. “The tendency (during El Niño years) is for snowstorms to be few and far between in Steamboat. But there are lots of ways for my climate prediction to be wrong.”
He said El Niño could cede to neutral conditions as early as January, a weather pattern Ramey said is more unpredictable and could bring an abundance of snowfall to Northwest Colorado, or a lack of it.
Ramey bases his annual winter forecasts on snowfall data going back to 1950 and following the state of El Niño.
El Niño results from higher temperatures in the central and east-central Pacific near the equator. La Niña, which typically brings more snowfall and moisture to Steamboat, is the result of colder ocean temperatures.
Ramey said the study of El Niño and La Niña is the best way to try and develop an early winter forecast.
“Dynamic climate models and statistical climate models still are not as effective as looking at the state of El Niño and following those patterns,” he said.
While the rising Pacific Ocean temperatures currently spell bad news for Steamboat's ski season, Ramey said time always can prove the predictions wrong and reverse Steamboat Ski Area's fortunes.
He told attendees of the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop in fall 2007 to expect a drier than average snow year. The 300 audience members greeted that prediction with resounding boos.
But as the winter season went on, the snowfall measurements outpaced Ramey's prediction.
“There's always hope for me to be proven wrong,” he said. “I try to give some kind of climate outlook, but there's a lot of uncertainty. That's the state of climate science.”
Preparing for the worst
It's the uncertainty that keeps Stanko's winter preparations largely the same each fall.
She and her husband, Jim, already are bracing for the snow to fly.
“You prepare for the worst and hope for the best and take what comes,” Jo Stanko said. “We're hoping we're going to have at least a normal winter as far as precipitation.”
They will check their springs to make sure they'll flow and not freeze up this winter. They'll soon pull out all their boots and coats. The heavy machinery will be dusted off and oiled.
And crock pots and pressure cookers will be brought out filled with chili and chicken noodle soup.
“You don't cook potato salad in the winter,” Jo Stanko said.
She said that welcome or not, the winter ultimately will usher a change of pace on the ranch.
"I used to look forward to winter because the pace slows down," Jim Stanko said as he brush hogged his fields. "But now that I'm older, I'm not lookin' forward to the cold weather to tell you the truth."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com