Meteorologists release early predictions for Summit County’s 2023-24 ski season based on historic El Nino data

Meteorologists have released early predictions for what the 2023-24 ski season could look like in Summit County and across Colorado. 

While experts maintain that nothing is certain and that their tools for predicting snowfall this early remain limited, one atmospheric weather pattern is providing some clues.

“For the upcoming winter season, an El Nino looks to be in store, and better yet, current sea surface temperatures are showing a strengthening El Nino event,” wrote OpenSnow meteorologist Sam Collentine in an Aug. 30 post.

El Nino patterns form when surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, off the coast of South America, rise above average by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive months. This pushes the jet stream south and can bring more precipitation and cooler temperatures to southern regions with dryer conditions in the north. 

For the past three ski seasons, Colorado has seen a La Niña pattern, which can have the inverse effect. 

But the relationship between El Nino and the state’s snowfall tends to be a mixed bag, Collentine wrote. For example, data shows the 30-year median for snow water equivalent (the amount of water held in snow) for Copper Mountain Resort on March 31 is 14.6 inches, according to Collentine. When comparing Copper’s median for each of the past seven significant El Nino years dating back to 1982, just three were above normal. The high was 16.5 inches in 2002-03, Collentine wrote.

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The most recent El Nino season was 2015-16, which saw below-normal snowfall of 93% of the 30-year median. 

At Copper, “It tends to be that the shoulder seasons are above normal, while the winter months are below normal,” Collentine wrote.

“Overall, history tells us that Copper Mountain tends to be right around normal for snowfall during El Nino events, with the potential for a stronger start and end to the season,” he wrote.

While El Nino patterns may not have a strong correlation to snowfall in Colorado’s central mountains, it can in other parts of the state. For example, Wolf Creek Ski Area, tucked away in the southern San Juan mountains, saw above-average snowfall during five out of the past seven El Nino seasons, according to an analysis by Collentine. In the north, Steamboat Ski Resort saw above-average snowfall during three of the seven El Nino seasons, which aligns with the pattern’s influence on the jet stream. 

Still, experts said such patterns do not cement a season’s snowfall. While last year’s La Nina pattern should have been characterized by heavy snowfall in the north and less in the south, Purgatory Resort, a southern ski area, reported one of its best ski seasons in years the pattern “kind of broke the rule of what you’d expect last year,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier.

OpenSnow founder Joel Gratz, in a previous interview with the Summit Daily News, said La Niña and El Nino patterns are “one of the few things that we have any shred of ability to forecast six months in advance.”

But even with a correlation of above- or below-average snowfall, “It doesn’t mean that every year is guaranteed to be that way,” he said.

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