Potential Benefits of Prolonged Warm Weather

Waking up in a flooded tent to the sound of rapidly accumulating snow is not the picture most had in mind for the late-September Block Break. Yet this is what some FOOT trips and independent groups encountered, especially those that traveled to southern Colorado. Alternatively, in mid-November I expected to be layering on ski gear instead of lounging on the quad in shorts.

Going home for Thanksgiving was also slightly disappointing. Instead of skiing opening day on Aspen Mountain, I watched as snow guns blasted in a frenzy around the clock, trying to cover the yellow grass and dirt with some skiable form of precipitation that Colorado is currently lacking. Store products and radio music are already embracing the winter season, yet the weather does not seem to be following suit.

East Quad aglow in October sunshine during a spell of warm fall weather. Photo by Eva Bombeck
East Quad aglow in October sunshine during a spell of warm fall weather. Photo by Eva Bombeck

The average temperature for this past October was around 74 degrees Fahrenheit and November’s temperatures hovered around the 60s until recently, accompanied by little to no snow in much of Colorado, specifically Colorado Springs. Arapahoe Basin opened on Oct. 21., with only 10 percent of its terrain open and an 18-inch base. With other resorts struggling to open, the lack of snow may seem concerning. However, a historical look at weather patterns reveals that the early-November warm spell is only a few degrees above what is characteristic for the Springs at this time of year.

The dry fall could be an indication of the “La Niña” phenomenon. This is considered the cold phase of temperature-oscillation that occurs in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. For North America, this can mean a drier climate for the Southwest and more extreme winter conditions in the North. Yet previously observed trends cannot always predict what weather we should expect, and although lack of early snow often correlates to a low snow year, it does not necessarily mean that this will be a bad ski season. At the very least, temperatures are cool enough for ski resorts to start snowmaking, and Breckenridge and Keystone opened Nov. 19.

The later snowfall could also lead to a slightly more stable backcountry snowpack. The typical snow pattern brings early snow from October to December, which doesn’t pile up deep enough to make a solid snow pack. During this time, a steep gradient temperature may exist between the ground temperature and the surrounding air. This temperature leads to early instability that then gets covered up by thicker layers of snow in later winter months. Therefore, if snow arrives later but more consistently, the lack of snow currently could be beneficial for the minimization of temperature gradient within the snowpack and aid in the bonding of layers.

A snow-less sunrise from Pikes Peak. Photo by Peter Chapman
A snow-less sunrise from Pikes Peak. Photo by Peter Chapman

Snow may not be in the immediate forecast, but the continued dry weather truly does not signify a poor ski and snowboard season. In fact, in 2007, one of Colorado’s greatest snow years, the season started out similarly dry, and yet some resorts ended up staying open as late as June.

Moreover, as much as we like to complain about the potentially icy, man-made slopes in our future, we should at least appreciate what this continuous warm weather has afforded us. The comfortable temperatures provided boaters and climbers with an extended season that many appreciated despite the timing. The ability to play quad games such as frisbee and spike ball without getting numb hands this late in the season has been a simple luxury that shouldn’t be taken for granted. However, with the sprinkling of snow on Pikes Peak and increasingly colder mornings, skiing and sledding on the Preserve hill may not be too far in the future.


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