Vail Daily column: Why is everyone freaking out about this year’s El Nino? |

Vail Daily column: Why is everyone freaking out about this year’s El Nino?

In most ski towns, the upcoming winter snow forecast becomes a subject of concern akin to presidential elections or reality TV. People want to know what kind of season to expect, but disparate sources make it hard to get a clear picture. “Experts” ranging from self-proclaimed meteorology buffs to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all have a thing or two to say about the upcoming winter. Unfortunately, I am not the oracle for whom you’ve all been waiting. Any information I have is already out there. But I’ve assembled some of the most reliable sources to help all you powder hounds out there navigate the storm of winter weather predictions.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard people rest their confidence in a stellar winter on this year’s El Nino, then I would probably have about $5. That may not be much money, but it is enough to make me want to set the record straight. Unfortunately, an El Nino is not actually that reliable.

Characteristics of El Nino

An El Nino is characterized by a 0.5 degrees Celsius increase in sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean west of South America and east of Australia. Warming the ocean’s surface changes the location of thunderstorms over the Pacific and amazingly, those changes can influence global weather patterns. A moderate to strong El Nino (classified as a 1-1.9 degrees Celsius sea surface temperature increase) has the potential to increase precipitation in the western United States. That being said, NOAA forecasted a strong El Nino for winter 2014-15 and when the El Nino finally happened, it was in March and it wasn’t very strong. Furthermore, last winter was one of the lower snowfall years on record. So why is everyone freaking out about this year’s El Nino?

For starters, it’s already happening. Positive sea surface temperature anomalies have been reported from El Nino monitoring stations, which means that meteorologists can make predictions for this winter based on actual data. However, now the skeptics in the room are asking: If the El Nino is already happening, then won’t it get weaker as the winter goes on and maybe not deliver those blower pow days? The short answer is: possibly. Also, sea surface temperature increases in other regions of the Pacific have the ability to, at least partially, derail an El Nino.

We may not be able to count our chickens yet, but according to NOAA, “Nearly all models predict El Nino to continue throughout 2015.” NOAA currently projects that there is a greater than 90 percent chance that El Nino will continue through the fall, and around an 85 percent chance it will last through the winter.

How Much More Snow?

But let’s get to the point already — how much will snowfall increase? Well, that’s where it gets a bit murkier. According to NOAA, there is a 33 to 40 percent chance of above average winter precipitation. Read: NOAA is not saying winter precipitation will be 33 to 40 percent greater, rather they’re saying there is 33 to 40 percent chance that we will have more snow, which isn’t too bad as far as weather predictions go. Overall, the forecast for this winter seems promising, but it’s still never a good idea to count your chickens before they hatch.

If the concept of climatologists and meteorologists and many other types of “ologists” sitting around dissecting your shred season nauseates you, then fear not. There are tales as old as time that people swear by when they claim this winter is going to be one for the record books.

Start by taking a look at your dog. Does your furry friend seem perhaps … furrier? Animals can sense what kind of winter it’s going to be long before humans, so if your dog is bundling up now that could be a sign of chilly days ahead. Next take a look outside. Tall green gentian is an age-old predictor of frequent snowstorms. The taller the plants, the deeper the snow. As the days get shorter and as mountain tops begin to get dusted with snow, start tuning up your gear and be ready to enjoy whatever snow we get. Because the only thing that seems certain when predicting the weather, is that there is a lot of uncertainty.

Emily Stuchiner was a summer naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. To share your thoughts on the upcoming winter with her, email her at

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