The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently released its climate predictions for our current 2018-2019 winter. For snow enthusiasts, the news is not great. NOAA predicts a mild winter ahead with above-average temperatures predicted to cover roughly three-quarters of the United States, including Colorado. No regions in the U.S. are expected to have below-average temperatures.
These statements are only probabilities, however, and should not be taken too seriously — especially considering this year’s El Niño is a weak one, which means that climate prediction is much harder and less accurate. Temperatures are also not the only measure of snowfall; a more accurate prediction method for snowfall is NOAA’s precipitation outlook.
This measurement predicts that the southern mountains of Colorado will have above-average levels of precipitation this year, as illustrated in the map.
Furthermore, meteorologists can rarely, if ever, predict snowfall accumulation more than 10 days in advance. Think of NOAA’s precipitation outlook as more of an educated guess at what the season may hold for us. This educated guess is still informative; it is based mostly on the El Niño discussed earlier.
Last season, we had a La Niña, the opposite of El Niño. When there is an El Niño, above-average temperatures occur in the tropical Pacific, which translates to more evaporation and more precipitation across the southern United States. Because last year featured a La Niña, temperatures in the tropical Pacific were lower than average — hence the dry season we experienced. Therefore, even though we had a weak El Niño this season, it is still more promising for snowfall than a La Niña.
Using El Niño to predict precipitation in Colorado is tricky. Russ Schumacher, Colorado state climatologist for the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, explained, “The trouble with El Niño is that Colorado sits right in between the areas where it has its strongest effects. It tends to be wet in El Niño years across Texas and down along the Gulf Coast, then dry and warm to the north of us in Montana, Wyoming.”
This is why only southern Colorado is highlighted to get above-average precipitation in NOAA’s winter precipitation outlook map. Then again, Schumacher also pointed out that there have been some El Niño years with very little snow and others with plentiful snow.
Regardless of the amount of snow, CC students have and will likely continue to hit the slopes on the weekends, particularly in Summit County — certainly not southern Colorado, where NOAA predicts greater precipitation. Luckily, this early season has seen about twice the snowfall that typically occurs, allowing students to take advantage of quality ski and snowboard conditions at least for now. Time will tell how NOAA’s temperature and precipitation predictions correspond to observed snowfall.