The flip of a coin
Last year, Klaus Wolter issued his trusted opinion on which direction the winter would take.
“This is going to be winter of low expectations,” said Wolter, a climate expert and a research associate at the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, in November. “Count your blessings, whatever you get.”
He said there was little chance for a La Nina pattern to bring snow to the Rockies, and that the winter months would be relatively warm and dry.
To the delight of snow lovers around Colorado, he was completely wrong.
“When I said that there was a good chance for a dry winter, I meant there was a good chance,” Wolter said this month. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have it the other way.”
For longtime Vail local Buzz Schleper, last winter was less of a surprise and more of a throwback to the powder days of yesteryear.
“Last year reminded me of the first 20 years I was here,” he said. “We had about 10 to 11 years of low snow, and I think we’re kind of out of the drought pattern. And I’ve been here about 213 years. I’m always right about the weather.”
Vail local Chris Anthony, a professional skier, doesn’t use all of the computer models and statistics that Wolter does, but he says he has a pretty good feeling about this year as well.
“It’ll be hard to beat last year,” he said “My hope is there will be tons and tons of powder, of course. But I’m really superstitious; I’m afraid if I think too positive it might go the other way.”
Wolter said that last year was an anomaly ” an extreme event that came about with a lot of luck ” and skiers and snowboarders can’t count on him being wrong this year. But what does NOAA’s Rocky Mountain long-range forecaster say will happen this winter? And what are the chances he’ll be right?
“Klaus feels a little burned, but what he predicted did actually start to happen in March,” said Colorado State University professor and state climatologist Nolan Doesken. “It just wasn’t when he planned. The relationships that he trusted with the Southern Oscillation haven’t been working. Tying everything that happens in our atmosphere to one or two cycles is dangerous because the atmosphere responds to a myriad of effects.”
Doesken monitors data from the state, tracks trends, patterns and anomalies which might, to a certain extent, hint at what the future might hold.
“It’s like they say in the stock market, ‘past performance doesn’t guarantee future success,'” Doesken said. And the consensus among forecasters is that it is just as much of a gamble as the economy.
John Snook, a forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said they’re getting mixed signals from the temperatures in the Pacific, and therefore not much predictability for Colorado. He said that to try and predict precipitation for this winter, they’ve compared the conditions of predictors to other similar years. Of the six years with similar indications, two were some of the snowiest in 50 years and two were some of the driest.
“The overall set up this year is not terribly different from last year,” Wolter said. “But the deck is shuffled the other way: Last year I thought it was looking like a dry winter, and this year is looking like a wet winter.”
Wolter believes that La Nina might be lingering over into this season, however, no forecasters have “officially” announced it.
“It’s a dirty little secret that the atmosphere is acting as if we still have La Nina,” Wolter said. “But there is a debate as to whether it will strengthen or not.”
Doesken said their predictions lean heavily on two factors: existing long-term trends and the strength of the Southern Oscillation, better known as El Nino or La Nina. The former is warmer-than-average temperatures in the Southern Pacific Ocean and the latter refers to colder-than-average conditions.
The mention of El Nino or La Nina brings one thing to mind for any snowsport enthusiast: snow, and lots of it. No one around the Vail Valley will soon forget last year’s epic season, fueled by a strong La Nina.
Forecasters say that Vail’s central location puts it in a favorable positions for a variety of storm paths, but with all that powder comes a tricky atmospheric platform on which to base long-range forecasts.
Wolter said that Colorado is one of the toughest places to forecast because there are so many different ways to get precipitation, and any month can be the wettest month of the year.
To make his forecasts, Wolter said he tries to pick potential predictors that others have pointed out, too.
“It’s not a wild goose chase,” he said. “I look at a few hundred predictors and pick out the ones that have historically performed the best, and figure out what the bias of the prediction is. It’s better than flipping a coin, but it’s not perfect.”
Doesken also admits to the precarious nature of predicting the weather.
“The skill of long range forecasts is just not that good,” Doesken said. “It’s dangerous to say what happened in the past is a good predictor of the future.”
However, there is an ancient-by-comparison method of long-range forecasting that some turn to when they’re looking for what they want to hear.
The Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac both predict a frigid winter this year. Published since 1792, the Old Farmer’s Almanac calls for a cold and dry winter through the Rocky Mountain region, while the Farmer’s Almanac, born 26 years later, said Colorado is primed for “decent snowfall and icy temperatures.”
If you’re looking for a reason to trust the Farmer’s Almanac, they claim 80 to 85 percent accuracy, and, while many forecasters like Wolter predicted a warmer ’07-’08 winter, the almanac was almost dead on with its predictions for last year.
Mike Brumbaugh of Venture Sports in Avon said he stopped listening to both forecasters and almanacs 15 years ago.
“It’s easier to count when it’s on the ground,” he said. “But no matter what, Vail has great snowmaking.
We’ve always gotten decent snow, and even if it’s a crappy year there’s always good powder if you know where to go.”
Doesken said he is often sent copies of almanacs and takes time to scan through them.
“What the Farmer’s Almanac is good at is they know the typical climate, they know the cycles.” he said. “They use typical progressions of what the climate should do. But you can’t turn to a particular day and know what will happen months in advance. It doesn’t work out at all.”
He said the specifics of when a storm is going to happen or where is not predictable past a few days, with 10 being the maximum.
So how can the Farmer’s Almanac claim such a high accuracy when climatologists can only predict slightly better than 50 percent?
The almanacs claim to use an age-old “secret” formula that incorporates the study of sunspots, which are magnetic storms on the sun’s surface. Almanac creators observed the sunspot cycles and collected several farmers’ rules of thumb over the years, according to Wolter.
Doesken said these sunspots traditionally go in 11-year cycles, but that our storms don’t necessarily follow them. Publications like the almanacs tend to “broad brush” their forecasts, and if long-range weather forecasting is already an inexact science, generalizing by large regions is nearly impossible. When an almanac predicts the entire intermountain region will be “cold and dry,” there is a good chance that will happen ” in some places.
“Fifty-five percent is pretty good,” Doesken said with regard to the NOAA and NWS forecasts. “And 65 percent is dead on. If they’re claiming 80 to 85 percent, well, they must be pretty generous with their scoring.”
While Wolter and Doesken deal in probabilities, the almanacs never mention the chances of the weather events they predict. They do, however, say that Jan. 10 “12 will be the best days to can fruits and vegetables, and that cutting firewood will be most successful during the week of April 1-8.
Snook said that he reads almanacs occasionally.
“I read it for humor sometimes, but I wouldn’t flip to a certain date and plan a wedding day or anything,” he said. “I could ‘wish cast’ and say I hope it’s going to be a big year, but beyond a week or so, it’s really like flipping a coin. Even saying it’s going to snow 2 inches four days from now is not really possible.”
But like all snowsport enthusiasts, all Snook, Doesken and Wolter can do is hope for a bigger winter than last year, with the help of climatologists and maybe a little wishful thinking from the Farmer’s Almanac.
“There are many who have begun to think that we can make these forecasts,” Doesken said. “Weather forecasts are better than they were 20 years ago. Climate forecasts have only occasionally gotten better, but there’s been a raised expectation that we can predict the winter.”
Schleper doesn’t make predictions, and puts his faith in the mountains over NOAA forecasts and almanac predictions.
“We have the Gore Range,” he said. “It traps every little snowflake. We’re going to get the snow that nobody else does. But even during a year they said was a drought, I have pictures of skiing in waist deep snow. It will always snow in Vail because of the Gores.”
Anthony said he takes forecasts with a grain of salt.
“I am no climatologist,” he said, “but I do a lot of traveling and I’ve been noticing the weather patterns.”
He said that with the climate generally warming around the globe, there is more moisture in the air, and that moisture has to fall somewhere, making for more extreme weather events and hostile climates; including huge snowstorms from the Pacific Northwest.
“But that’s just my theory,” he said. “I don’t want to jinx it.”
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