After two years of long, warm falls (one so warm that it pushed back Vail Mountain's scheduled opening), recent chilly nights and the sight of snow-covered peaks have us feeling optimistic for winter, but then again, it's only mid-September, and we still have two months until lifts start spinning at both area resorts. While we can't make it snow, we did the next best thing to get us through the waiting season—chatted with OpenSnow founder and resident Colorado snow man Joel Gratz, who broke down what we can—and probably shouldn't—count on for the coming season.
What’s important to keep in mind about long range forecasts (particularly in regards to snowfall), and what is it that meteorologists are actually looking at to develop these long term predictions? How often are they accurate?
"First off, keep in mind that most 3-6 month forecasts—most of the time—are not accurate. Also, these forecasts predict if temperatures or precipitation will be above/below average over 3-6 months, and can't tell you what month or what week will have the most snow. Second, to develop these 3-6 month forecasts, we look at ocean water temperatures across the world, because these temperatures tend to influence the weather patterns months later."
NOAA recently issued a La Niña watch for fall/winter of 2017/18. What does this mean, and what can we actually expect from this?
"The update shows a 60% chance for La Niña. So not a slam dunk, but heading in that direction. La Niña tends to bring a storm track from the northwest, which is favorable for Vail, but also, it's not a given that La Niña will lead to big snowfall."
Based on the data you're seeing so far, what are some areas of the country that you think have a higher probability of seeing some good snow throughout the season (and are there any areas that you’re predicting will have bleaker snow prospects)? What’s your current assessment of what we can expect for Vail and Beaver Creek?
"Since we're trending toward La Niña, which often brings a storm track from the northwest, it's possible that the northwest and northern Rockies could do well, and this could translate toward northern Utah and northern Colorado. I am cautiously optimistic about a good snow season for Vail and Beaver Creek—but remember, 3-6 month forecasts are usually not accurate."
When it comes to weather for Vail and Beaver Creek, in particular, what kind of storms typically drop the most snow, and what type of weather patterns should we look for once we're in ski season? Is there a certain time of year you tend to see more of these types of weather patterns?
"For Vail, a wind direction from the northwest will bring the most snow, and for Beaver Creek, a wind direction from the west will bring the most snow. In terms of a certain time of year, I can't point to one in particular. I do like the period from December 15 - January 30 because the sun angle is low and therefore the powder stays cold and soft for longer."
Okay, hypothetical situation: Vail says it got 10 inches overnight, the Blue Sky snow stake is showing a foot and a half, you’ve got two hours to hit the mountain, what’s your go-to route to hit all your favorite spots (no pressure!)?
"That's a great question, and one that I won't answer. It's taken myself and friends years to figure out our powder morning game plan, and it's the right game plan for us but not for everyone. Each person's favorite route will depend on their skiing ability and the terrain they like. What I will say is that if you see a snow report like that, get up early and get in line!"
Last question: I’m seeing forecasts that parts of the West might see snow in the coming week; can we read anything from these early storms, or is it simply just too early to tell?
"Don't read into the early storms—they're not a good or bad sign for the season's snowfall."