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El Nino 2015 - coming to a ski resort near you? - Jane Peel, PlanetSKI
Sunday October 11, 2015 - Email this article to a friend

The weather system looks like being huge this winter.  Already there is much talk, hope and expectation. But what is it? PlanetSKI separates the fact from the fiction.

The phenomenon has a big impact on weather across the globe, and this year, El Nino looks like being big. Very big.

The third strongest on record.

Some have dubbed it Godzilla El Nino.

It's already thought to have been responsible for some much-needed late-season snow in ski resorts near Santiago in Chile.

Resorts and tour operators are optimistic that it will bring a bumper snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere this winter.  

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that.

El Nino could be good news for drought-stricken California which has had a couple of disastrous years. 

Last winter it recorded less than 40 per cent of its average snowfall, and some of the steeper terrain did not open all season. 

Here is a satellite image of what the California snow pack should look like at the end of winter.

2010The snowpack in 2010











And here is what it look like at the end of last season.

2015The snowpack in 2015












But El Nino doesn't only mean more precipitation. 

It can bring milder weather too.  

So there is a risk that in some places there will be rain when we want snow.

As far as Europe is concerned, the behaviour of other weird and wonderful weather phenomena, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, will play their part.

So what on earth is it all about?

Every two to seven years, we get an El Nino.

It happens when the waters of the central Pacific Ocean become abnormally warm.  Combined with changes in normal wind patterns, it distorts the world's weather.

Depending on where you are, El Nino contributes to extreme events such as droughts, floods, typhoons, heavy rain or snow.

In the US, El Nino generally results in higher than average snowfall in the southern third of the country, but less snow and warmer temperatures in the northern third. 

So it is possible that resorts in the north east US, which saw the best conditions last winter thanks to an exceptionally cold spell mid-season, could be milder this year, and the California resorts could finally get some decent snow.

"A strong El Nino will favour greater precipitation and therefore snowfall in California particularly, and also in Southern Colorado and Utah," says Fraser Wilkin of

"Telluride is probably the best known resort in Colorado that could benefit. 

"Places like Vail, Breckenridge, Winter Park are further north, so El Nino might have a neutral effect there".

Fingers crossed in ColoradoFingers crossed in Colorado















Fraser Wilkin suggested we consult an American snow guru for more information.

Tony Crocker runs the website and studies snowfall at more than 100 North American ski resorts.  

He is a statistician who bases his conclusions on detailed historical analysis.

"El Nino strongly favours only southern California and Arizona," he says, "with milder effects extending to the southern Sierra, far southern Utah and New Mexico".

Tony says although the two biggest snow years in southern California corresponded to the two strongest El Ninos of 1982-83 and 1997-98, there are no guarantees.

The fourth strongest El Nino (1986-87) produced a "real stinker" of a season there with only 59 per cent of average snowfall.

Tony says a broad region of North American ski areas is favoured when - instead of El Nino - we experience La Nina, where the waters of the central Pacific are abnormally cool rather than abnormally warm.

These are Washington State, the US Northern Rockies and most of Western Canada.

"While there are again no guarantees," he says, "the expectation for these areas is about 85 per cent of normal snowfall, and it would be unusual for snowfall to be above average during a strong El Nino season".

But he says there is better news for a couple of individual ski areas.

"There are a few microclimates in the region, notably Sun Valley in Idaho and Whistler that do not show negative effects in strong El Nino months".

Tony says most other ski regions in North America, such as Utah, Colorado and the North East, have only "minimal sensitivity" to El Nino.

So what about Europe? 

Can the continent be affected by something that is developing a very long way away in the equatorial Pacific?

"There has never been any proven link between snowfall in the Alps and El Nino," Fraser Wilkin told PlanetSKI. "Any meteorologist would agree with that". 

Related to El Nino?European snow related to El Nino?
















The Met Office forecaster Tomasz Schafernaker, says  El Nino can sometimes bring colder, drier weather to Europe throughout winter and into the spring, but "El Nino never behaves in the same way twice, and this is just one of the elements at play". 

One of those other elements is the North Atlantic Oscillation we mentioned earlier.

It involves large-scale changes in atmospheric pressure and controls the strength and direction of the westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. 

So El Nino alone, however it decides to behave this time, will not determine what sort of winter we have here in Europe.

There are other uncertainties too, unique to this El Nino.

David Carlson, Director of the World Climate Research Programme, says the planet has changed a lot since the last big El Nino, with a rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and snow cover.

How that will combine with the effects of El Nino is unknown.

"This is a new planet," he says.  "Will the two patterns reinforce each other or cancel each other?  We have no precedent. 

"Climate change is increasingly going to put us in this situation. We don't have a previous event like this".

What we do know for certain is that this year's El Nino is the strongest since 1997-98.

The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization says so in its latest update, which it published at the beginning of September. 

The WMO expects El Nino to be at its peak between now and January, with its impacts being felt right into May.

El Nino would be very welcome in CalforniaEl Nino would be very welcome in Calfornia
















Fraser Wilkin, from weathertoski, will be providing PlanetSKI's weekly snow reports this winter.

For the spirit of the mountains

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