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  • Dylan Anderson

What is a 'super El Nino,' and why does it probably not matter for Steamboat’s snow prospects?

It's the second winter in a row featuring a climate phenomenon with a fun name, but how it will impact snow totals is hard to predict.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is predicting this year’s El Nino may be one of the strongest observed in the last 70 years.

El Nino is part of a cycle — with the other half being La Nina — that refers to water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. When water off the western coast of South America is warmer than normal, it is called an El Nino.

According to NCAR’s prediction, this year’s El Nino could see water temperatures rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius. Anything over 2 degrees is considered “super,” but the phenomenon has only happened three times since 1950 — 1982-83, 1997-98 and 2015-16.

This year’s potential super El Nino comes a year after another obscure climate event with a fun name — a “Triple dip La Nina.” That term meant it was the third year in a row that there was a La Nina in the Pacific Ocean, which also has only been seen three times since 1950. Last year’s winter was the second snowiest ever recorded at Steamboat Resort, so what does this year’s new climate buzzword hold for snow prospects?

Unfortunately, Local Meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said it probably doesn’t mean much at all.

“The thing about the whole El Nino-La Nina weather phenomenon is there tends to be a ridge of high pressure that builds in the Pacific and where that actually sets up really determines our weather,” said Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website and wrote about the super El Nino topic in his latest weather narrative.

Colorado, and Steamboat in particular, generally falls in the middle of the areas of impact for El Nino-La Nina, which leads to there not being a clear correlation in terms of snowfall. Weissbluth noted Steamboat has very recent evidence of that, with each of the last three years being La Nina, but each having very different snow totals. 2020-21 saw just 235 inches at Steamboat Resort and last year got almost double that.

Instead, Steamboat’s snow is really about where that high-pressure ridge sets up, Weissbluth said.

“If it’s far enough west, toward the Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska, we can get northwest flow,” Weissbluth said, referencing the weather pattern that often produces Steamboat’s best snow. “If that ridge merges toward the West Coast or even inland, then the storm track is north and east of our area.”

Weissbluth said based on Snotel data, it appears the two most recent super El Nino’s were average snow seasons in the Yampa Valley. There isn’t Snotel data for the 1982-83 year, but Steamboat Resort reported 236 inches — a well below average year.

“That was almost 40 years ago,” Weissbluth said, noting that with just three data points, there isn’t much to go on. “We have two more recent events that were average, so it could vary.”

Snowfall is off to a slow start this year and there are not many chances for natural snow in the near term, Weissbluth said. Still, it should be cold enough every night for at least the next week for Steamboat Resort’s snowmaking team to be productive.

“They should be able to blow a lot of snow,” Weissbluth said.


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