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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Bill Jennings: Ski resort openings not an exact science

By Bill Jennings For The Spokesman-Review

Every ski resort preps to be ready by Thanksgiving Day. Historically, snow conditions allow that to happen about 25 percent of the time. Schweitzer’s snow guns will allow limited terrain to open tomorrow.

But there are a few factors that may explain why we may wait just a little longer at other local hills. Take the calendar, for example.

“Thanksgiving is a moving target,” said Ron Miller, meteorologist in charge at the Spokane National Weather Service office. “It could land anywhere from Nov. 22 to 28. Compared to climatology averages on when the snowpack starts building up, being the earliest date possible makes it even tougher to open by Thanksgiving.”

And then there’s El Niño. Ocean temperatures are trending warmer and climatologists predict a weak El Niño could influence our season from at least December through January.

El Niño and La Niña are opposite positions of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a cycle of warming and cooling in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that influences our winters. In the popular imagination, during a La Niña winter, powder days are routine. El Niños are often associated with slim pickings on bony slopes.

However, after talking with Miller and his staff, I wonder if our general assumptions give ENSO more credit than it deserves for making or breaking our skiing and riding season.

“El Niño is one factor in determining what kind of winter we will have,” Miller said. “It’s not the only factor, but it’s the only one we can reliably predict.”

In addition to the ENSO cycle in the oceans, there are many other potent climate patterns that circumnavigate the globe.

“The difference of the others in respect with ENSO is that they aren’t tied to the oceans,” Miller said. “They’re purely atmospheric oscillations that don’t have the long-lived nature ENSO has. ENSOs are much slower to form and decay.”

Sometimes ENSO is the main player, but Miller said these other climate factors can override, undermine or enhance the influence of an El Niño or La Niña throughout the winter. But their effects can only be predicted a week or two in advance.

Meteorologists use climate and weather data collected over decades to calculate probabilities. Despite the El Niño incubating in the equatorial Pacific, the outcome for winter remains unclear. So think positively.

To help me answer the short-term question of when we can start skiing and riding, NWS meteorologist Jeremy Wolf came up with a creative data solution.

Wolf used data collected from SNOTEL sites located near Schweitzer (6,090 feet), Lookout Pass (5,140 feet) and Quartz Peak (4,700) near Mount Spokane. SNOTEL sites record the snow water equivalent (SWE) of the snowpack. Local ski areas can usually open limited terrain with between 3-5 feet of snow. That’s a SWE of about 5 inches. Wolf gathered the dates when this threshold was met at those three sites since 1987.

“I calculated the average first date of significant mountain snow pack,” Wolf wrote in an email. “I also calculated averages for El Niño years, La Niña years and neutral years. It shows that neutral years have a slight edge for earliest date. El Niño and La Niña dates are close to each other but a little later compared to neutral years on average.

Wolf’s data showed that since 1987, all three SNOTEL sites reached the 3 to 5-foot depth anywhere from a couple of days to a week earlier on average during ENSO-neutral winters. The Schweitzer site’s earliest threshold date was Oct. 24. Earliest for the Lookout site was Nov. 16. Both occurred in 1996, an ENSO-neutral year. The earliest Quartz Peak threshold was Nov. 10, 1994, an El Niño year.

Don’t lose sleep over El Niño. Earlier this week, before my deadline, there was a chance of snow Thursday. Miller said it was a pretty weak system. But the outlook gets better.

“I wouldn’t expect a lot of precipitation until maybe Friday or Saturday,” he said. “Usually, the first system that breaks down high pressure tends to be pretty weak. I would be more confident in Saturday or Sunday and after that for better chances of precipitation.”

Meterologists don’t like to go out on a limb, but Miller offered some cautious optimism for an opening day on Thanksgiving weekend.

“We tend to avoid being too definitive and specific,” he said. “But often times, it doesn’t take much once the pattern kicks in. When the storm door gets open, you can get a couple or 3 feet of snow on the mountain with just a couple of storms. So I wouldn’t rule it out.”

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