January 10, 1996
Nothing sends a cold shiver of fear into a ski resort exec’s heart more than a few days, or, worse, a week or two, without any significant snowfall. It’s during these dry times when resort spin doctors earn their pay. Before early January’s generous snowstorms, things were getting a little edgy for many Colorado resorts as Front Range recreationists began making tee times at Denver golf courses instead of reservations at mountain resorts. However, perception often supersedes fact when snowfall is the topic.
According to Nolan Doeskin, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University, “last year (at this time) was even sunnier, even warmer and less snowier than this year.” And last season was considered a banner snow year in Colorado. Doeskin pointed out that this time of year is crucial to ski resorts economically. “Skiers pay full price (for lift tickets) and they want them to have a good experience.” With skiers often paying in excess of $40 for a lift ticket, resorts are under the gun to produce good conditions, which explains their huge investment in snowmaking equipment. Pictured above are several of Steamboat’s snowmakers at work.
While many resorts, particularly those in the central and northern Rocky Mountains, experienced excellent early season snows, many southern Colorado and northern New Mexico resorts were bypassed by storms, not only in November and December, but by early January’s storms as well. Most noticeable are Wolf Creek and Taos, N.M., the former Colorado’s snowfall king, but languishing at an unheard-of 28-inch base as of Jan. 7; the latter a perennial sure bet for excellent snowfall, but also sporting a mere 28-inch base. Near-record precipitation was experienced in the northern Rockies before the first of the year, leaving Idaho and Montana resorts with very good early season snow. However, the Lake Tahoe/Reno area seems to have been bypassed. As of Jan. 6, Weather Services Corp. was reporting the following snow depths:
- Snowbird, Utah – 78 inches
- Park City, Utah – 54 inches
- Alta, Utah – 77 inches
- Big Sky, Mont. – 60-84 inches
- Bridger Bowl, Mont. – 30-65 inches
- Sun Valley, Idaho – 26-49 inches
- Northstar at Tahoe – 14-25 inches
Colorado Ski Country’s partial Jan. 7 report:
- Copper Mountain – 63 inches
- Loveland Basin – 71 inches
- Winter Park – 75 inches
All in all, said Doeskin, the snow gods are behaving fairly normally this season. After the drought of 1976-77, the worst snow year in memory in the region, the Rocky Mountains have been blessed with very good early season (i.e. before Jan. 1) snow. This year, however, the Pacific Ocean has not produced southwest storms, leaving southern Rocky Mountain resorts high and dry.
Climatologically speaking, snowbirds set their sights on the Pacific when anticipating storms. Storms form over the Pacific, said Doeskin, whenever north-south temperature gradients occur, combined with fluctuations in the jet stream pattern, which moves systems along. The N-S gradients are maximized during mid-winter when the poles are at their coldest, concentrating temperature differences at mid-latitudes.
The big weather event of the past several years was, of course, El Niñ, the Pacific wind and ocean current which cooled off last summer. El Niñ, said Doeskin, may have been associated with more moisture falling in the southern Rockies, although he hesitated in making a direct correlation between El Niñ and Rocky Mountain snowfall.
Long-range snow predictions for the Rocky Mountains is still a matter of “flipping the coin,” said Doeskin. He noted that Colorado has an edge over other western and Rocky Mountain states because of elevation. “We don’t lose snow during the winter,” while lower elevation ski areas may experience melting snow. Earlier this season, he pointed out, lots of snow fell in the Pacific Northwest, but warm temperatures melted much of it.
Over the last 20 years, observed Doeskin, January generally has been a lull period, with usually one monstrous storm. February is also dry, although last year Breckenridge received 7 feet of snow in five days and nothing more all month. March through April tends to stormy throughout, but the snow is wetter and heavier.
Invariably, during a dry spell, resorts will call on less-scientific ways of either forecasting or generating snowfalls. Native Americans will be called in to perform snow dances, city councils will pass resolutions demanding snow and the behavior of elk, deer and bear will be scrutinized for clues. In the end, however, Mother Nature herself must cooperate. As the first big snowstorm of 1996 passes into memory, we’ll be watching the skies for more snow.