El Nino is not a big thing for Steamboat this winter | SteamboatToday.com

El Nino is not a big thing for Steamboat this winter

— The upcoming winter of 2014-15 represents an El Nino season, but based on the latest forecast, and recent history, skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts needn't adjust their vacation plans.

Scientists at the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Aug. 7 that El Nino, the storm shifter caused by warming temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, is shaping up to be a mild event. It's also likely to be neutral where Steamboat is concerned, according to NOAA.

Meteorologist Joel Gratz, who operates the snow forecasting site http://www.opensnow.com, thinks El Nino could have a positive effect on northern New Mexico and Arizona this winter.

There is about a 67 percent chance of above-average snow in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah and southern Colorado, he thinks.

"I will say though that mountains in the southwestern part of the U.S. should do pretty well this year," Gratz wrote this week. "During the past six winters when I was present, snowfall in the southwest was above-average four years, average one year and below average one year.”

Comparing snow totals at midmountain at Steamboat Ski Area during the past six El Nino seasons to average snowfall of about 308 inches shows that Steamboat has experienced winters that ranged from a little bit below average, like the 291 inches that fell in 1997-98, to strong winters like 2002-03, when 344 inches were recorded.

What's also apparent from looking at Steamboat's snow history is that Mount Werner hasn't experienced any of its seven monster winters of more than 400 inches of snow during an El Nino winter since 1979-80.

Steamboat Springs-based meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who authors the blog http://www.snowalarm.com, said Steamboat's relationship with El Nino is complex and varies with the longitudinal (east or west) location of a ridge of high pressure that typically sets up in the eastern Pacific during El Nino years. Often, that ridge is strong enough that the polar jet stream undercuts it, bringing moisture and energy to the southern two-thirds of the western U.S.

"For northern Colorado, the longitudinal position of this ridge is critical," Weissbluth said. "If it is too far east, then the ridge deflects any energy and moisture to our north. If it is just far enough west, then we are in active and moist northwest flow."

A concern arises, Weissbluth said, if the Pacific ridge sets up too far to the west. That development can mean that Steamboat loses the preferred northwest storm track that delivers much of Steamboat's winter precipitation.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1