Ski areas in the West, particularly in Utah and California, enjoyed record snowfall and seemingly endless powder days last season thanks to La Niña.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts an El Niño weather pattern for the winter 2023-2024 season, which will bring something different from the past three years of La Niña.
El Niño is a weather pattern that has to do with the westward-bound tradewinds in the Pacific Ocean weakening and pushing warm water against the western side of the Americas, per the National Ocean Service. When the opposite occurs, it’s called La Niña.
What does El Niño mean for the upcoming ski season?
In his long-range forecast, meteorologist Chris Tomer says the data suggests a drier than normal winter for most of the West, according to OnTheSnow. But it could still be a big winter for resorts around Lake Tahoe and Mammoth and in Colorado. Tomer predicts a wetter than normal winter for the East, where most New England ski areas could see above-normal snowfall.
“We’re currently seeing a strong El Niño, while some of the model guidance suggests we’re heading for a super strong El Niño,” Tomer said, noting only five winter seasons since 1950 have seen a super strong El Niño event.
La Niña and El Niño weather patterns provide a historical guide for meteorologists to look at the data and forecasts from past seasons to make informed predictions when those patterns reemerge.
But long-range snow forecasts, even in La Niña and El Niño years, don’t always match up with actual snowfall. Last year, for example, California was forecasted to have a warmer and drier ski season because of La Niña. Still, multiple California ski areas broke their all-time snowfall records, per OnTheSnow.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a snowy “winter wonderland” in Utah despite El Niño conditions.
How did El Niño impact ski resorts in the past?
The effects of El Niño appear to show a mixed bag for much of the western United States, with the strongest signal being average to above-average snowfall for the Southwest, according to OpenSnow meteorologist Sam Collentine. The pattern, though, doesn’t hold 100% of the time.
Collentine looked back at the last significant El Niño event eight years ago, and its impact on snowfall during the 2015-2016 winter season in resorts in the West. Ski areas in California, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest had above-average snowfall, while those in Utah and the Northern Rockies were below normal.
For example, Alta, which, at 903 inches, recorded more snow than any resort last season, finished the 2015-16 season with 438 inches or 86% of normal. Snowbasin and Brian Head also were down. Meantime, in California, Kirkwood and Mammoth were at least 100% of normal, as were Steamboat and Beaver Creek in Colorado.
When is the best time to book a ski trip?
While the 2015-2016 ski season is interesting to look at as a potential comparison for an El Niño episode, Collentine says skiers and snowboarders should keep in mind that no matter how deep or light a winter is overall, when it comes to skiing, it’s all about timing.
Booking a trip 7 to 10 days in advance and for a general area that looks stormy will increase your chances of scoring the best conditions, he says.