El Niño in Colorado: Will it Stoke or Strangle the Ski Season?

If El Niño delivers, mucho epic days may be in store.
If El Niño delivers, mucho epic days may be in store. Derrick Dobbin
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A monster El Niño is upon us, with the potential to become the strongest on record. And winter just hit Colorado with a bang, with back-to-back storms hammering the mountains. Are the two related? Will this be an epic snow year? We dug into some research to find out what El Niño in Colorado might mean for the 2015-2016 ski season, so you can plan accordingly.

In general, weather experts agree that powder junkies have good reason to be excited about the upcoming season. “The potential is high for southwest Colorado and the Front Range to see really good snowfall," says Chris Spears, weather producer and meteorologist for CBS4 in Denver.

But first, a little science lesson: What is El Niño, exactly? Technically speaking, it refers to warming in the east equatorial Pacific Ocean (off the coast of South America), when sea surface temperatures creep 0.5°C above normal. Trade winds shift direction. With the atmosphere and the ocean swirling in a confused soup, world weather patterns can get wacky.

Sea surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean point to this being a monster El Niño.
Sea surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean point to this being a monster El Niño. NOAA

“If you change something in one part of the globe, like around the equator, it’s a domino effect,” Spears says. “El Niño, due to that warming, interrupts the circulation of the atmosphere. The result is that we get changed, crazy weather.”

El Niño can get a bad rap, catching blame for everything from torrential rain and flooding in California to tropical storms in the Pacific and cyclones hitting the Arabian Peninsula. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on where you are on the planet. If you happen to be in Colorado, for example, El Niño can be a good thing. A very good thing, particularly if you like to ski or snowboard.

El Niño might mean a bounty of powder days.
El Niño might mean a bounty of powder days. Zach Dischner

This El Niño is setting up to be one of the strongest on record, nipping at the heels of 1997-98 and 1982-83, which both delivered big dumps to Colorado.

That being said, pinning down a meteorologist to make steadfast predictions about Colorado snowfall in an El Niño year is kind of like trying to hold a live, flopping fish: Just when you think you’ve got it, the darn thing squirms out of your grasp. Nevertheless, the experts we consulted agree that El Niño has the potential to bring more snow to Colorado.

“Normally during El Niño, we see it wetter than average in the southern tier of the U.S. and drier than average in the northern tier,” says Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Climate Prediction Center, which declares when El Niño has started and forecasts what it will do. “The forecast is for there being a tilt in the odds for it being wetter than average for the southern half of Colorado.”

This could mean epic seasons for Purgatory, Telluride, Wolf Creek, Monarch, Silverton, Crested Butte, and Taos.

If El Niño delivers epic snowfall, fresh tracks will be plentiful.
If El Niño delivers epic snowfall, fresh tracks will be plentiful. Avery Stonich

“It’s hard to make predictions when you don’t have a lot of history to go by,” says Spears, who points out that reliable El Niño records go back only to the 1950s. “But history says that when we get these strong episodes, part of Colorado really benefits—the southern mountains and the southwest mountains can get really hammered with epic snowfall.”

One person hedging his bets is Nick Barlow, a meteorologist who started the Colorado snow forecasting site The Barlometer and is also snow safety director for the cat-skiing operation Powder Addiction. “One of the main features in the northern hemisphere and North America is we see a more active southern stream. The southern jet stream is more amplified so we tend to see more storms that are following that trajectory,” he says. “That puts Colorado on the border between the wetter winter and drier one.”

According to Barlow, most of the time this means equal chances for above average, average, or below average snowfall in Colorado, although Boulder and Denver could end up getting more than their fair share. “One of the implications is if these southern storms track through Arizona and New Mexico, sometimes that can bring a big upslope event to the Front Range,” says Barlow.

Big upslope storms could make snow-crusted Flatirons a common sight.
Big upslope storms could make snow-crusted Flatirons a common sight. Avery Stonich

The potential El Niño loser could be Colorado’s northwestern mountains. “Sometimes they’re drier than normal when we’re in a strong El Niño because it pulls the storm track too far south to really benefit them,” says Spears.

One thing is for certain: When the season is over, we’ll know what this El Niño shaped up to be. “It’s almost easier to analyze El Niño when it’s over,” says Spears.

And that will just leave us guessing again next time El Niño rolls around.

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