The unusual dusting of snow on peaks across Summit County on Aug. 24 tickled the senses and sparked the imagination of local powder hounds for what the upcoming ski season could be.
It turns out, it really may be a sign of things to come this winter, only about three months away now. While the 2015-16 season fell slightly below average based on snow totals at most of the region’s resorts, 2016-17 might just be one for the record books.
“Long-range forecasts stink,” acknowledged Joel Gratz, meteorologist and founder of snow forecasting website OpenSnow. “We can’t even do seasonal very accurately yet, so don’t hold your breath in terms of doing six-month outlooks down to the month. But looking ahead to next winter, La Niña might be quite good.”
Coming off a strong year for El Niño, which means warmer-than-average water temperatures in a portion of the Pacific Ocean, the transition to the cooler-than-average La Niña has typically meant above-average snowpacks for the following season. Though 600 miles away, the Pacific is often the best draw of moisture — and, thus, frozen water vapors — for the state.
Should this occur as expected, looking back to similar changeovers is a logical way to gauge what type of winter may be approaching. And, in doing so over the past century, Gratz believes 2016-17 could be a doozie.
“That’s a pretty decent analog and predictor for what might happen next year,” he said. “When water temperatures are above or below normal in that part of the earth, that influences weather patterns around the globe, which somewhat predictably influences our snowfall here. It’s not perfect, as you know, because we can’t perfectly forecast seasonal outlooks, but it gives us a clue.”
Previous El Niño-to-La Niña segues over the past two decades have included 1995-96, 1998-98, 2007-08 and 2010-11. Two of those periods stand as all-time snow years at four of the area’s five resorts: 387 inches at Keystone Resort and an astonishing 572 inches at Loveland Ski Area in 1995-96; 390 inches at Copper Mountain Resort and 520 inches at Breckenridge Ski Resort in 2010-11.
For comparison’s sake, the annual average snowfalls at each of those ski areas are 235 inches (Keystone), 422 inches (Loveland), 304 inches (Copper) and 353 inches (Breckenridge). Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Summit County’s other winter sports destination, averages about 350 inches annually and boasts a 550-inch record season from 1979-80, a light El Niño year.
So does that mean everyone should race out tomorrow to buy their season ski pass? Not so fast. But it does mean people can start preparing accordingly, especially for the region’s roadways.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) will once again occasionally be applying its passenger vehicle traction law this winter per conditions, requiring motorists possess either snow/mud tires, four-wheel or all-wheel drive or chains (or similar traction device). All tires must also meet the minimum one-eighth-inch tread prerequisite. Those who are found by law enforcement not to be in compliance could be fined no less than $130 and as much as $650 if they get stuck and block the road for other commuters.
“What people should understand is we did a lot of education around that last year and not a lot of enforcement,” explained CDOT spokeswoman Tracy Trulove. “The Colorado State Patrol will be doing more enforcement and more ticketing if you are caught driving the I-70 corridor and you don’t have those things.”
Regardless of whether this winter ends up being a record-breaker or not, it is recommended that motorists along the I-70 Mountain Corridor — as well as all state and federal highways — be prepared for inclement situations. That means keeping supplies such as water, snacks and blankets packed in the car for all winter trips. Planning ahead, including checking for possible road closures via cotrip.org,remains critical.
“It’s all about preparation if you want to make it as easy as possible for your winter travel,” added Trulove. “Also, people need to go on and get the information about what the road conditions look like rather than just kind of flip a coin and decide they’re going to go out in it and find themselves sitting in a closure somewhere because we’re getting our roads cleared.”
In the case that 2016-17 ends up being the big one, CDOT is confident its use of several tactics will help prevent total shutdowns. Those include the use of increased numbers of on-call plow drivers from Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel all the way down to Dotsero (mile marker 133 on I-70) to staggered, crew-based plowing and continuous flow metering at mile marker 207 when necessary, based on traffic congestion.
Winter officially begins with the Dec. 21 solstice, though several of the region’s ski areas plan to open more than a month before that date. Arapahoe Basin and Loveland will again duke it out to be first to welcome skiers and riders, ordinarily sometime in October. Keystone has already confirmed plans to open on Nov. 4 and Breckenridge Nov. 11. Copper will start its lifts on a similar time frame, too.
In the meantime, it’s all about playing the waiting game to see how this season’s snow starts to materialize. And at this point, it’s still anyone’s guess, even if it’s an educated one.
“(Weather models) don’t agree,” said Gratz, “but they all show some trend toward cooler-than-average water temperatures for next winter. It gives you some level of confidence that next season could be pretty good. Don’t mortgage your house on this, I would say, but I’m optimistic.”