As anyone privy to water cooler talk is already aware, a strong El Niño will play a big role in the lives of skiers and snowboarders this winter.
In fact, there’s a 90 percent chance the meteorological force will persist through the season, and it may end up being one of the strongest El Niño events in recorded history. Add that to cold-air outbreaks and regular old snowstorms, and you’ve got a recipe for unusual and sometimes unpredictable winter weather patterns.
Overall, this winter is expected to be milder than last year’s, although some parts of the country are likely to experience more significant snowfall than usual. Meteorologists are predicting stormier conditions and colder temperatures than usual across the southern U.S. and less precipitation and warmer temps across the northern states.
Not sure where to hit the slopes? Here’s a preview of what Mother Nature has in store.
What to Expect When You’re Hoping for Snow
No matter where you are in the country (or where you’re hoping to travel during ski season), El Niño is bound to have an effect on the local snow conditions. Here’s a synopsis of region-by-region snowfall predictions.
The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic
Predictions for the Northeast are still up in the air, as they’re heavily dependent on how strong El Niño becomes. (For now, reports suggest that it will be very strong.) The more intense it is, the higher the chances of heavy snowfall across New England. But without that boost, expect average precipitation and more ice than powder. As usual, higher elevations can expect a greater chance of snowy conditions earlier in the season.
The same goes for the Mid-Atlantic. No one is calling for record-breaking snows; instead, expect a slightly warm but generally average year across the region. If big snowstorms do come to the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, they’re likely to arrive in the latter half of the season.
Things don’t bode all that well for those looking to hit the slopes in the middle of the country. Overall, meteorologists are predicting 30-40 percent less snowfall than average. The Great Lakes region, in particular, is likely to experience much less precipitation than normal.
Moving further westward to the northern Plains, it’s likely that a few snowstorms may hit early in the season, then pull back for a bit before dumping more snow at the tail end of winter. But overall, don’t expect spectacular snows in the north. The southern Plains may benefit from a southern storm track caused by El Niño—meaning there’s a chance that the region will see more snowfall than usual.
For the most part, sources tend to agree that the southwestern states are the place to be this winter. Significant precipitation and storms are highly likely (NOAA is predicting a 30-40 percent chance of above-average precipitation), and snowfall is expected to continue well into the spring.
In contrast, the Northwest, the interior of the Rockies, and the Northern Rockies may experience average or even slightly below average snowfall. (If significant snowfall does come to these areas, it’s more likely to arrive in the early spring.) Here’s how things are stacking up at some of the more popular ski destinations.
Wet, stormy conditions mean the odds are good that the southern half of California (and the Sierra region in general) will experience higher-than-normal snowfall this year. Tahoe resorts in Northern California will likely see average snowfall, which is still an improvement over last year. And one source is predicting that the Mt. Shasta region may receive record-breaking snowfall.
Different regions in Colorado may find themselves experiencing very different winters this season. The southern mountains are most likely to experience heavy snowfall that’s perhaps slightly above average. The central mountains will probably remain on track for normal levels of snowfall. And the northern mountains may experiences snowfall that’s slightly below normal. That means popular Vail may receive slightly less snow than usual (but the skiing should still be fine), while Aspen has a chance at seeing above-average snowfall. Overall, expect significant accumulations to pile on toward the end of the season.
In general, Utah resorts should see average or slightly above-average snowfall. Much like in Colorado, Utah’s southern mountains are more likely to see a boost in snowfall than mountains that are further north. As a result, expect great conditions at popular Moab.
Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana
The northwestern-most region of the U.S. remains a big question mark, since El Niño’s effect may be mitigated by an unusually warm pool of water that’s been sitting off the coast and keeping the area warm and dry. As a result, it’s likely that swaths of the Pacific Northwest will remain uncharacteristically dry throughout the winter.
Same goes for the northern Rocky Mountain States—they’re predicted to have weaker winters than normal, with as much as 40 percent less snowfall than average.
Wyoming will probably miss out on the above-average snowfalls expected in Southern California, Colorado, and Utah, although it’s a bit of a wildcard. Depending on how the Jet Stream performs, the state could receive either slightly below or slightly above normal levels of snowfall. In any case, conditions should still be fine for a ski or snowboard trip.
The north-south distinction happening across the contiguous United States will also affect The Last Frontier. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates that southeastern Alaska will experience above-average precipitation, while central and western portions of the state will experience less precipitation than normal.
Of course, when you’re dealing with weather, nothing is set in stone. In the western U.S., for example, approximately 10 percent of the storms are responsible for 50 percent of the season’s snowfall. That means that any shifts in the forecast can have big ramifications for the snowfall in a given area. The best way to ensure you’re able to ski or board primo powder is to stay on top of weather reports for your desired destination and plan what hotel you can stay in, should the white stuff start falling.. And when experts start calling for a storm, book your ticket, stat.