Confidence is growing that Colorado skiers and snowboarders could see above-average snowfall this coming winter, based on one of the key climate factors meteorologists monitor to predict seasonal precipitation patterns in the U.S.
Because of relatively cool surface temperatures in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean, meteorologists say a “robust” La Niña phenomenon is strengthening there, and that usually means good to great mountain snow for Colorado and the northern Rockies. La Niña events typically produce storm tracks that predominantly flow from the Pacific Northwest.
The opposite phenomenon, El Niño, occurs when surface water temperatures in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific are above normal, producing storms that predominantly track across the southern U.S.
Current conditions could portend abundant powder come winter.
“These are the coolest temperatures we’ve seen in the east-central Pacific for the month of August since 2010,” said meteorologist Sam Collentine, chief operating officer for the ski-oriented OpenSnow weather forecasting and monitoring service.
“That’s telling us there’s a pretty robust La Niña setting up right now, and when we look back at the last significant La Niña event, that was a very healthy snow year — not only for Colorado, but the entire western United States,” he added.
That was the ski season of 2010-11. In a report posted Wednesday on OpenSnow, Collentine cited figures from the snowfall recording site bestsnow.net that put snowfall in Breckenridge that winter at 80% above normal. Steamboat came in at 35% above normal.
“Colorado mountains — northern, central and southern — ranged from 400-500 inches that season, which is well above average,” Collentine said. “When we look back at significant La Niña events, we typically see average to above-average snowfall in Colorado, much of the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.”
In fact, Collentine reported, there have been seven significant La Niña winters since 1988, and the current La Niña surface temperature ranks fourth-coolest among them.
Also worth noting, this will be the third consecutive La Niña winter — something meteorologists have been calling a “triple-dip,” according to Open Snow — although the effect was less pronounced in 2020 and 2021.
Meteorologists necessarily hedge their bets because other weather phenomena can come into play, but the August data coming from the Pacific is encouraging.
“These are multi-year cycles we go through,” Collentine said. “For skiers and snowboarders in Colorado, it helps us get a hint at what we could see for the next few months into the winter season.”