Is the Vail Valley’s good early snow a sign of more powder through the winter?

Abundant early snow helped Vail Mountain open early on Wednesday, Nov. 14. Beaver Creek also opened early, on Saturday, Nov. 17. After early storms, forecasters expect clear skies for the next several days.
Chris Dillmann |

The forecast

Here’s the forecast for Vail through Thanksgiving Day:

Saturday, Nov. 17: 50 percent chance of snow showers in the evening. High, 38, low, 17.

Sunday, Nov. 18: Clear. High, 38, low, 10.

Monday, Nov. 19: Clear. High, 38, low, 13.

Tuesday, Nov. 20: Clear. High, 40, low, 13.

Wednesday, Nov. 21: Clear: High, 39, low, 15.

Thursday, Nov. 22: Clear, with a high of 38.

Source: National Weather Service

EAGLE COUNTY — The local snow season is off to a good start, but what does that mean for the winter to come? A Magic 8-Ball would say “outlook uncertain.”

While there’s snow in the forecast for Saturday, Nov. 17, the National Weather Service is predicting clear skies through at least Thursday, Nov. 22, Thanksgiving Day. And despite good early snow, as of Wednesday, Nov. 15, the U.S. Drought Monitor still has most of western Colorado in either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions.

“Droughts aren’t over in a month,” said Dennis Phillips, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office. But, Phillips added, given the dry conditions of the past couple of snow seasons — basically October through April each year — odds seem to favor at least a fairly normal winter to come.

So far, so good

The snowfall so far has been a boon for area resorts. Vail Mountain opened two days early on Wednesday, Nov. 14, with more than 500 acres of available terrain. Additional openings on Saturday, Nov. 17, will bump that number up to more than 900 acres. Along with the natural snow, both resorts are running their snowmaking equipment as much as cold weather allows.

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In an email, Sally Gunter, Vail Resorts senior communications manager for Vail and Beaver Creek, wrote that normal snowmaking is continuing “with accelerated timelines.”

Gunter wrote that lower temperatures have allowed snowmaking to be more efficient and to run faster than it normally does.

While forecasters are loath to predict the weather more than about 10 days into the future, climate models do show some cause for optimism.

An area of the central Pacific ocean west of Ecuador generates weather patterns that hit North America. Warmer-than-average water temperatures in that area generate patterns called El Nino. Cooler-than-average water temperatures in the area generate La Nina patterns.

This year, an El Nino appears to be developing. But, Phillips said, water temperatures haven’t yet connected to the atmosphere.

If and when that connection takes place, El Nino patterns generally track to the Southwestern United States.

Generally, that can mean epic snow on Wolf Creek Pass. La Nina years generally mean more snowfall in Steamboat Springs.

Vail is somewhere in the middle.

Becky Bolinger, of the Colorado Climate Center, said it’s hard to tell whether resorts along the Interstate 70 corridor will benefit from El Nino or La Nina.

But last winter didn’t deliver much snow throughout the Colorado Rockies. Steamboat had a roughly average snow year, but persistent high pressure over the desert southwest kept storms from tracking much farther south.

Some promising signs

Bolinger said climate predictions give for some optimism for the next three months.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center’s outlook through February shows an above-average chance of above-average precipitation for December, January and February.

Bolinger said the developing El Nino is good news for the Four Corners area in extreme southwestern Colorado. That area of Colorado has been hardest-hit by recent drought conditions.

But, she added, “My optimism starts to fade the farther north you go, especially into the Yampa (River) basin.”

Bolinger said at this point, Vail and Beaver Creek “could go either way” in receiving storms from the El Nino pattern.

At the moment, though, snowpack numbers in the area look good compared to the 30-year averages. Still, it’s very early in the snow season.

“It’s easy for (snow totals) to look like a huge deficit or a huge surplus” this time of year, Bolinger said. “Still, this is promising. It’s something we haven’t seen in a couple of years.”

Again, anything can happen over the next few months. Bolinger noted that good snow in October can be a harbinger of good things to come but trends won’t start to become clear until January or so.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at and 970-748-2930.

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