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How Is El Niño Going to Affect Ski Season?

Get ready for record snowfalls. Well, kinda.

American meteorologists have skewed priorities. Forecasts for this winter's strong El Niño include warnings about natural disasters (mudslides in the South, flooding on the coasts, torrential rainfall in Southern California), yet there's nothing about what it all means for downhill skiers’ deep-powder prospects. That ends today.

U.S. Winter Precipitation Outlook, NOAA
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“What normally happens during El Niño is wetter weather in the South and dryer weather in the North,” says Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist for NOAA’s climate prediction center. “With a lot of the areas where you see a lot of skiing, you’re stuck between the two." 

Di Liberto advises dividing El Niño’s atmospheric impact into three (ski) areas: the Northwest, the Rockies, and the Northeast.

West Coast/Northwest

It will likely be wetter than average in Southern California, “with less of a chance the farther north you go,” says Di Liberto. Simultaneously, temperatures are more likely to be warm in the northern part of the state and cooler in the south. That’s great news for the Lake Tahoe area, where ski resorts are seeing their earliest opening dates in more than a decade. 

But it’s bad news the further north you get. Mountains in the Northwest, such as Timberline and Mount Bachelor in Oregon, Crystal Mountain and Mount Baker in Washington, and even Sun Valley in Idaho could see dramatically less precipitation and higher temperatures than average. 

Powder Outlook: Not great, unless you’re at Tahoe.


Rockies/Middle America

“If there’s anywhere in the Rockies that’s favorable during El Niño for extra snowfall, it’s Southern Colorado and Southwest Utah, in the higher elevations,” Di Liberto says. “In terms of skiing, the four-corners area is your best bet.” That's fantastic news for some of the nation’s biggest ski resorts: Telluride is in the sweet spot, with Aspen and Vail not far behind. Mountains in the north, though, might not be so lucky. Jackson Hole in Wyoming, Park City in Utah, and Big Sky in Montana could see lower than usual precipitation.

Powder Outlook: Spectacular the farther south you go.


New England

This one’s a toss-up. Coastal areas are supposed to see above-average precipitation, but it’s unclear if that will extend inland to such resorts as Stratton and Jay Peak in Vermont and Sunday River and Sugarloaf in Maine. “The problem with the Northeast is that in general, it doesn’t have a very strong signal during El Niño,” Di Liberto says, meaning there's not many indicators around to make concrete predictions. “We’ve seen it do a little bit of everything. That said, there are a few signs that snowfall this winter could be underwhelming: Usually El Niño means warmer-than-average temperatures across the Northeast, he says, “so if they do get precipitation, it could happen as rain or ice storms.” 

Powder Outlook: Not great. But not maybe not horrible, either. (Thanks, Science.)


U.S. Winter Temperature Outlook, NOAA

It’s not just about how much snowfall to expect. You also have to consider how long the snow will fall, and Di Liberto says to expect a long winter.

“El Niño’s not a storm, so it’s not like it’s going to ‘hit,'” he says. “We’re going to see a bigger snowfall in the beginning and end rather than the middle.”

It's important to remember that these predictions are, well, predictions; don't rush to cancel your trip just yet. Even so, you might want to trust the experts: Andrew Siffert, a senior meteorologist at the insurance brokering group BMS Intermediaries, is putting his money where his mouth is. “I’ve already booked some ski trips this year to Aspen and the Tahoe area,” he says. “It looks too good to pass up.”

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