NewsJanuary 5, 2012

Snow Drought? Wimpy Winter Weather Across U.S.

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

The calendar may say January, but across much of the U.S., the ground is bare, with none of the epic snowstorms that were the hallmarks of the past few winters.

While some may be cheering the lack of snow as welcome relief, the widespread lack of it spells trouble for the ski industry, which pumps billions into the wintertime economy in states from California to Maine, and requires cooperation from Mother Nature to stay in business.

Ski area operators across the country are already reporting drops in lift ticket sales, and are hoping for a major change in the weather pattern to bring colder, snowier weather. So far, die-hard skiers have been forced to either ski on man-made snow, or travel to one of the few far-flung areas that have benefited from the unusual weather, such as the mountains of New Mexico or Alaska.

Observed snow depth on December 29, 2010 (top) and December 29, 2011 (bottom). Credit: NOAA.

Compared to last winter, this wimpy winter weather is coming as quite a shock.

Snow was so widespread last winter that at one point in January, every state except Florida had some snow on the ground. But this year, the U.S. had the 11th least extensive December snow cover in the 46-year satellite record, said David Robinson, the director of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University.

“Is it fair to call it a snow drought? We’re getting there,” Robinson said. “It’s certainly an early season snow drought.”

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said this winter is noteworthy for how many ski areas are seeing below average snowfall. “Typically, we have one region or another in the country that might be off to a slow start. But the thing about this year that’s somewhat unique is that it’s kind of an across-the-country problem, at least to date.”

Nowhere is the contrast from last winter so evident as in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, home to Lake Tahoe’s ski resorts.

Last year, skiers hit the slopes all the way through July 4th, and several mountains set all-time seasonal snowfall records, with totals surpassing 65 feet. Squaw Valley, for example, received a staggering 810 inches of snow.

At Alpine Meadows, California, just 1.5 inches of snow fell this December, well below the average of 72.3 inches, and far below last year’s 134-inch December total.

The lack of snow has allowed Yosemite’s Tioga Pass, a road that would normally be buried in snow by now, to remain open later than at any time since recordkeeping began in 1933.

Snow depth departures from average in Lake Tahoe, California on Jan. . Credit: NOAA.

In the Northeast, an October blizzard and other early season snows were followed by warm temperatures that melted the natural snow cover, and prevented ski areas from making snow. With a recent shot of cold air, New England’s ski resorts have finally cranked up their snow making operations, but attendance is down from last year, in part due to the bare ground in major media markets, such as New York and Boston. With just a trace of snow in December, Boston had its second-least snowiest December on record, for example.

“Psychologically, we do better when people see snowfall in their backyards,” said Bonnie MacPherson of Okemo Mountain in Vermont, where skier visits were down about 30 percent compared to last year over the same Christmas holiday week.

“We’re fortunate in that we’ve invested pretty heavily in the snow making system that we have,” she said.

Smaller ski areas, such as Magic Mountain in Londonderry, Vt., that don’t have vast snow making resources have had a tougher go of it.

The ski industry is a major source of revenue and jobs in the Northeast. In Vermont alone, the ski industry employs 34,000 people and results in $775 million in annual direct spending,  according to Jen Butson, spokeswoman for Ski Vermont. Last winter, Vermont saw 4.3 million skier visits. In total, about half of the state’s 1,200 trails are expected to be open this weekend, Butson said.

“With 100-plus days left in the season, there's plenty of winter to be enjoyed, and business recovered,” she said.

Yet with each passing day of below average snowfall, it becomes more difficult to make up for lost time, especially when spring is arriving earlier on average due in part to global warming. This forces ski area operators to squeeze the same amount of earnings into a shorter time period.

Rutgers’ Robinson said ski areas would have to rely more on the President’s Day school vacation week in February to compensate for lost revenue during the Christmas holiday period. “Many of the ski resorts are going to have to really count on it this year because they were hurt by the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s,“ he said. A poor turnout during that week could mean ski areas are “going to be running in the red.”

Where to go for fresh snow?

So in a fickle winter like this one, where should a snow-starved skier go to experience some natural snow?

Taos Ski Resort. Credit: Jay S. Clark/flickr

If you’ve never skied in New Mexico, this might just be the year to try, as resorts like Taos have been repeatedly dumped on by storms taking a southerly track. More than 8 feet of snow has already fallen this year at Taos, which had “a dreadful season” last year, according to Adriana Blake, a spokeswoman for the resort. At the end of Christmas week, visitors were up 40 percent compared to last year, she said, and Taos is already seeing an influx of visitors who normally vacation in spots like Vail, Colo., because they’re chasing the natural snow cover.

If New Mexico is too far south, then consider heading north — way north — to Alaska. Although it’s not a common destination for skiers in the lower 48, the Alyeska resort outside of Anchorage has been walloped by winter storms. December snowfall was 183 inches, which was 135 percent of average, according to resort spokeswoman Amy Quesenberry. As of January 3, the ski area had already received about 280 inches for the season.

“Alyeska is having an amazing start to our ski season, especially in comparison to other resorts in the lower 48,” she said.

Forecasters are quick to caution, though, that the rest of the winter may not play out the same way that the season has started. Much depends on two key factors that affect winter weather in North America: La Niña and the Arctic Oscillation.

Two Very Different La Niña Winters

La Niña, which is a natural climate cycle characterized by cooler than average water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, tends to nudge the wintertime storm track to favor heavier snows in the Pacific Northwest, northern Rockies, Ohio Valley, and northern New England.

But this winter has not been behaving like a typical La Niña winter. Instead, storms have moved across southern California, into New Mexico and Colorado, and then on up into the Midwest.

Klaus Wolter, a researcher at NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colo., said there are indications this will change later this month. “I’m pretty confident that it will probably revert back to more typical La Niña winter weather,” he said.

Part of the reason why this winter has departed so dramatically from La Niña’s script has to do with the Arctic Oscillation, which is a pattern of atmospheric pressure that helps steer the jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere. When it’s in a “positive phase” as it has been so far this winter, cold air tends to remain bottled up in the Arctic.

Wolter and many other forecasters think the Arctic Oscillation may shift during the next few weeks, making it easier for a more typical La Niña weather pattern to emerge. This would begin to favor ski areas in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Big Sky, Montana.

So skiers will need to be more strategic than usual about when and where to go this season, potentially delaying buying airline tickets, making hotel reservations, or buying lift tickets.

Wolter, for example, is not taking any chances. He says he is holding off from booking a ski trip in Colorado over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, because he doesn’t see any major snowstorms in the pipeline before then.