Tag Archives: ski season

What to Expect from winter 2015-16 in Colorado

Forecasting the weather weeks to months ahead of time can often be problematic. Computer models that project atmospheric conditions into the future typically only provide utility out to 10-14 days, depending on who you ask. After that, forecasts often become erroneous due to what is often referred to as the “chaos effect”. In fact, there are many that believe that forecasting the weather for a specific day is only useful out to roughly 7-10 days. Most people manage their weather expectations beyond the 7-10 day horizon not by forecasting a specific event, but by describing more general expected trends.  It is more common to say something like “It is likely that the period from 14-21 days out will be warmer and drier than normal across much of the Western United States”.

Scientifically credible seasonal forecasts tend to rely on larger scale phenomenon that have been shown to impact our weather in the past. Luckily, for this upcoming season, the winter of 2015-16, there are two such phenomenon that could give us some significant foresight into what we could expect out of this coming winter.

The first, and most obvious one is the strong El Nino that is already underway. Strong El Nino conditions typically bring wet weather to the Southern United States due to a strong sub-tropical jet stream. In particular, California can be the recipient of some heavy rainfall, which hopefully can help give the state some much needed relief from the extreme drought conditions than have been experiencing. The other major impact, on a national level, is that the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains tend to have milder than average winters during strong El Ninos.


Unfortunately, maps like this one often make it ambiguous as to what impact El Nino typically has on the weather here in Colorado. On this map, as well as nearly every map of El Nino impacts, Colorado is in kind of a neutral zone, where areas to the south are wetter than usual, and areas to the north are drier than usual. However, as any resident of Colorado knows, Colorado’s rugged terrain has a significant impact on the weather here. Therefore, it is possible to discern some more local impacts that occur here in Colorado, as different large scale wind patterns are impacted by Colorado’s many mountain ranges. There are many sources of information regarding how Colorado fares during a strong El Nino year. Below is a graphical summary of these impacts.


In addition to El Nino, there is another major weather feature that could have a profound impact on our weather this winter. Not only are there warmer than normal ocean temperatures along the equator associated with the strong El Nino, but there is another section of extremely warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean farther north. This section of warm temperatures off the west coast of North America is being labelled “The Blob”. “The Blob” formed due to a persistent period of warmer and drier weather over the past several years. This is the weather pattern that lead to the extreme drought in California in the first place, and, now threatens to keep much of California in drought conditions despite the El Nino.


The easiest way to describe the impact “The Blob” is going to have on our winter weather is that it is going to try to produce conditions similar to last winter. Last winter was warm and dry over much of the West due to a persistent ridge, labelled “the ridge of death” by snow enthusiasts at OpenSnow, which is often associated with warmer sea surface temperatures off the Pacific Coast of North America.

While it is hard to imagine “The Blob” completely overwhelming the impacts of this historic El Nino, it does have the potential to modify them. Firstly, it could make the Pacific Northwest drier, and reduce the amount of rainfall California receives, particularly Northern California. Over Colorado, more frequent ridging, and/or dry Northwesterly flow aloft will reduce the likelihood of major Front Range upslope snowstorms, and increase the likelihood of a drier than normal winter over parts of Central Colorado, including many of the major ski resorts such as Vail, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. Those who hate extreme cold, though, will be comforted by the fact that the likelihood of sub-zero conditions across most of the state will be significantly below average this season.

The End of a Season


Last November, prior to the start of the 2014-2015 ski season, I attended a screening of Warren Miller’s No Turning Back.  The main part of this film is broken up into eight segments, each one featuring a different location around the world, and each one containing footage of extreme skiing or snowboarding interwoven into a storyline that describes the people and the culture around snow sports in that location.  This film’s primary impact is to get skiers and snowboarders excited about the upcoming season.  However, the introduction to this film actually contained a reminder that every ski season comes to an inevitable end.  A time lapse of a ski resort becoming progressively more green over time (during springtime) is shown while the narrator (of the introduction) compares skiing and ski season to “falling in love with someone you know is going to leave you in four months.”

Well, here in Colorado, that four month expiration date appears to be rapidly approaching.  On Friday (3/27), Vail ski resort, the largest in the state, was still being patronized by a significant number of snow sport enthusiasts.  However, signs everywhere are pointing towards the inevitable decline in the quality of the skiing that accompanies the transition from winter into spring.  Not the only recent day to feature temperatures exceeding 50F, sections of bare ground can be seen not only on the horizon, but also on many of the slopes themselves, particularly slopes that feature bumps on Vail’s back side.


Increasingly, trails are either being signed to caution skiers of this variable terrain, or being closed off altogether.

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Conditions like these are often labelled “spring conditions”, a label that is both descript and non-discript at the same time.  Labels like “powder” and “groomed” are commonly used to describe the snow conditions on any given slope.  These two labels, amongst the most commonly used, provide a clear indication of what kind of snow a skier or snowboarder can expect to encounter.  When conditions are labeled as “spring conditions”, they are often quite variable.

Over the course of the day on Friday, I encountered all sorts of snow conditions.  There were parts with large clumps of snow, parts with hard packed snow, parts that were quite icy, and, of course parts that were very slushy.  I even managed to find a couple of spots with untouched new snow in the trees (I am not calling it “powder” as the snow is wet in variety, much like the snow one would regularly see in New York City).  I often encountered a significant variety of snow conditions while traversing a single ski trail.  Transitioning, often from hard packed to icy, and then to slushy, would cause sudden shifts in my weight distribution.  Being jerked, both forwards and backwards while skiing down the mountain almost made me feel as if I were at a rodeo.  Only, instead of being jerked around by a bull, angry that his reproductive region had been recently violated, I was being jerked around by what is labeled “spring conditions”.

Regardless of whether we ski, partake in some other form of activity, or just enjoy warmer weather, spring, and the conditions associated with it, do often jerk us around, much in the same way I was at Vail.  Springtime is not a slow and steady transition from winter’s chill to warmer weather.  It is often chaotic with wildly variant weather patterns that people in Oklahoma are unfortunately all too familiar with.

Sometimes, as is the case in the Northeastern U.S. this year, winter just seems to keep on going, maintaining it’s grip far longer than expected.  Those who eagerly anticipate spring’s warmth have a rough time with years like this one, as it almost feels as if nature is trying to torment them.  Other years are far more choppy.  In many parts of the country, this time of year can feature weeks that include both summer-like warmth, and snow, sometimes even within a day or two of each other.  It is not unheard of for an early spring warm period to trigger some to plant outdoors, only to have these plants killed by an unexpected hard freeze later in the year.


Much like all other aspects of life, at the end of one season comes another one.  And, while the season to play in the snow is coming to an end, spring brings with it a whole new set of opportunities.  For those whose one and only love is skiing or snowboarding, the end of winter can feel very much like the narrator of No Turning Back described it; as having a feeling similar to having lost a love after four months.  However, for those who are fortunate enough to have found an appreciation for all of life’s seasons, the end of winter, and the transition to spring, while an ending in one sort, is also a beginning, with spring bringing with it a new set of opportunities.

The main advantage to living somewhere with seasons, as opposed to somewhere with consistent weather, is the variety that comes along with these cyclical changes.  In places like these, each season is distinct from the last.  At different times of year, we go to different places, and do different things, and even incorporate periods of rest and renewal into the cycle.  It provides life with a clear breaking point that distinguishes one year from another; something that many lack beyond college and graduate school.  I will most likely be back at Vail ski resort, to once again enjoy some of the world’s best skiing, before the end of 2015.  When that occurs, it will certainly have the look and feel of a completely new ski season distinct from the one that just ended.  Until then, the time has come to go and explore different places, maybe chase some storms, take some longer bike rides, or visit some places that are much more easily reached without the threat of a blizzard interrupting travel.  The coming months will certainly feature some amazing experiences that I cannot wait to have, enjoy, and share.