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Skiers and snowboarders in the Pacific Northwest were giddy when weather experts announced a “La Niña watch” a few months ago.
But that watch, issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was called off last week, perhaps tempering some excitement for the upcoming snow sports season.
La Niña weather patterns typically bring below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation to the Northwest, often meaning more snow in the mountains.
But now the 2016-17 winter is looking like a neutral year, according to NOAA.
“Really, anything goes in a neutral year,” says Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “The La Niña is no more. To be honest, it was looking weak at best.”
El Niño — which usually makes for a warmer and drier Northwest winter — and La Niña are seasonal weather patterns driven by sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Accurately forecasting the weather can be extremely difficult, especially without a strong El Niño or La Niña signature, but Dello is betting on a warmer-than-average winter in the Northwest.
“In a neutral year, we lost that little bit of predictability that we might have,” Dello said. “So what NOAA is saying now, for the next three months we have warmer-than-normal temperatures for the Northwest, and I think that’s due to the ocean conditions off our coast. The next three months is equal chances for precipitation. I think the temperature thing will continue, but I’m not sure about precipitation.”
Last winter, a strong El Niño was predicted for the Northwest but never materialized. Skiers and snowboarders in Central Oregon were actually treated to a decent winter of snowfall. Mount Bachelor ski area received 472 inches of snow, topping its seasonal average by 10 inches.
That came after a dismal 2014-15 season during which Bachelor got just 212 inches of snow.
“El Niño and La Niña don’t always work out like they should,” Dello says. “Last year we had a strong El Niño and it was wet and warm, and not warm and dry, like it normally is. The thing that I’m pointing to, more than La Niña, is the blob … it’s back. The blob is back, and that caused us all sorts of trouble in 2015.”
An area of warm water off the Washington and Oregon coasts, “the blob” is what sparked abnormally high temperatures last winter, and it appears to be contributing to a potentially warmer-than-average winter for 2016-17.
Dello says the blob had started to break apart earlier this year but has since reformed.
“The blob feature is new, in terms of the way we’ve been thinking about these things,” Dello says. “And it has certainly played a role in our weather.”
Dello explains that the recent warm winters are part of a global trend of climate change. She says the warmer temperatures are likely to continue each year, which puts the Northwest in a “precarious place.”
“We’re into a place where we can’t support low-elevation snow very well, and that’s where we get a bunch of our water supply from, that’s where some of our ski resorts are,” Dello says. “For the long-term future, yeah, we need to worry about our warming winters and seeing scenarios like 2015 playing out, where we have the precipitation, it’s just not falling as snow.”
Anthony Lakes usually a reliable spot for skiers even during ‘bad’ winters
Anthony Lakes Ski Area isn’t completely immune from the effects of temperature trends in the Pacific Ocean.
But it has a level of inoculation that ski resorts in the Cascades don’t enjoy.
Thanks in part to its elevation — the lodge, at 7,100 feet, is highest among Oregon ski areas — and in part to its distance from the Pacific, Anthony Lakes usually has skiable snow when the Cascades are mired in rain or slush.
The winter of 2014-15 is a recent example.
While ski areas in the Cascades were either closed due to a lack of snow or limited in their open terrain, Anthony Lakes, due largely to a couple of big storms early in the winter, was open throughout.
Anthony Lakes also boasted the deepest snow in Oregon early in the previous winter. The resort, which has been publicly owned since 2010, strives to open the day after Thanksgiving, which isn’t always possible. Anthony Lakes almost always is open by early December.
— Jayson Jacoby, WesCom News Service