Forecasters say a mighty El Niño warming eastern Pacific Ocean waters has the potential to bring nasty snowstorms to Southwest Colorado this winter.
“It’s possible right now,” Bernie Meier, a Weather Service meteorologist, said of El Niño potential. “The waters are fairly warm for this time of year; that’s why we’re expecting it to be a strong one. We definitely can’t rule out it being a record one.”
The current El Niño, nicknamed “Bruce Lee,” is already the second-strongest on record for this time of year. The Weather Service says it could be the biggest in 50 years.
The World Meteorological Organization says it appears Bruce Lee will strengthen before the year ends. And according to the Weather Service’s climate prediction center, temperature and precipitation impacts could last into 2016.
“There is a greater than 90 percent chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16,” the prediction center said in an El Niño advisory. “And around an 85 percent chance it will last into early spring 2016.”
El Niños, which brew in the waters off the Central and South American coasts, typically bring excess precipitation to California and leave Montana and Idaho abnormally dry. In Colorado, forecasters say, the weather phenomenon often means monster snow events.
“The biggest correlation we see is many of our bigger storms and stronger storms have occurred in El Niño years,” Meier said. “As far as above-normal precipitation and below-normal precipitation (in Colorado), we haven’t seen any correlation.”
Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist of OpenSnow.com, says while El Niño offers no forecast guarantees, “it tips the odds” toward there being more snow.
In previous years of strong El Niño, Gratz said he has seen trends of big storms.
“Each of those seasons started out pretty strong and each of those (ski and snowboard) seasons ended pretty strong,” he said. “The in between, the meat of the season, was below average.”
Joe Ramey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said some of the hype makes him cringe. An El Niño pattern will definitely affect the weather in western Colorado this winter, but it’s still impossible to forecast with certainty what it will mean for specific locations in the mountains, he said. He has examined the 23 El Niño winters since 1950 to see how they affected Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte, Telluride, Silverton and other Colorado ski resorts.
Conditions have tended to be drier and warmer than average during December, January and February.
“What El Nino tends to do is produce snow outside of that window,” he said.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center recently issued a three-month outlook for December, January and February. Central Colorado had an equal chance of temperatures being above or below average. Southern Colorado had a slight chance of being below average.
The southern two-thirds of the state has an above average chance of an above average amount of precipitation, the outlook said.
Economic studies have shown El Niño years can have a positive boost. Colorado’s ski areas, plagued by weak and inconsistent snowfalls in the past several years, certainly hope that is the case.
“It’s exciting news,” said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA. “It certainly adds to the buzz and anticipation of the season.”
Rudolph said resorts won’t know until after Labor Day Weekend if season pass sales will get an uptick from the news.
“For the industry overall, the fact that everyone is talking about this giant El Niño is great,” she said. “Overall, a rising tide lifts all boats.”