National Weather Service guru: “Uh oh, no Niño.”

Posted on October 7th, 2013 by | 2 Comments

This is the weather forecast we wait for every year. Despite being banned from the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop (CSAW) due to the federal government shutdown, National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Ramey delivered his annual prediction Friday. He did this vicariously through Colorado Avalanche Info Center forecaster Jon Snook, who pinch-hit for Ramey at the annual gathering of avalanche pros.

CAIC forecaster Jon Snook.

CAIC forecaster Jon Snook pinch hits for National Weather Service guru Joe Ramey.

“Uh oh, no Niño again,” Snook said to the crowd of several hundred. He said Ramey and his team at the NWS Climate Prediction Center depend on ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) and PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) trends to make their annual predictions. Southern Pacific surface water temps currently aren’t showing either an El Niño or La Niña weather pattern for the season. And PDO models show a cooling trend. Looking at historic weather patterns, this–combined with our current wet autumn–has correlated with below average snowfall in Colorado. But not extremely low, he pointed out. He said that in Colorado we can expect a snowy November into December, a fairly dry Jan/Feb, then the possibility of an El Niño pattern developing in March and April. Extrapolating on this, you can probably expect some pretty good mid-season snow in the Pacific Northwest, like last season.

El Niño patterns generally favor wet and cold conditions in the south and La Niña patterns generally favor wet and cold conditions in the north, with Colorado falling right in the middle. (Glass half-full: we have glorious sunny weather.)

Ramey nailed the forecast last year, predicting a non-Niño pattern with a wet December in Colorado  and a snowy April. So he’s got some cred with the snow safety crowd. In fact, Snook told the crowd Ramey was extremely disappointed not to make the trip, as it’s a weatherman’s dream to revel in an accurate forecast.

How much can we really depend on this forecast? Snook used a dartboard analogy to gain some wiggle room. He said the forecast represents a slice of surface area on a dartboard. While it’s possible to throw a dart and hit anything on the board, the chances for non-Niño are a little bit larger than the chances for some other weather pattern: either one can happen, depending on where the dart lands.

Regarding avalanches, snowfall can be inversely related to avalanche hazard: the less it snows, the more unstable the snowpack, thanks to the faceted snow grains that can develop over long, dry spells. So in a low snow year, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re equipped with an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe, avalanche shovel, avalanche airbag–and, most important, an avalanche course.

Stay tuned for more CSAW coverage over the next few weeks, as well as other regional avalanche workshops from Utah, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest. And the second-ever European International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW Europe) started today in Grenoble, France.

  • Joe Ramey

    Thanks for covering my talk at CSAW this year, and years past. In spite of not enjoying public speaking much, I look forward to CSAW every year. CSAW folks are high-end users and attentive listeners! I am not afraid to have the seasonal forecast go wrong, for that is the nature of the beast. But I always want to present a thorough analysis of the climate signals to give these folks the best possible information.
    Perhaps my dartboard analogy isn’t easily digested. I use the dartboards to show the CPC shift of probabilities- for Near, Below, or Above Normal precipitation. For this winter (and most winters!) the CPC shows no shift of precipitation probabilities for Colorado. In other words, the CPC has no forecast skill for Colorado. So what I try to do is pull some winter trend out of our climate record, to try to produce some forecast skill where the experts fear to tread!
    One last point I had hoped to make: the models are trending towards an El Nino developing sometime this cold season (and…sneak preview… I expect 2014-15 to be El Nino). El Nino spring seasons are often quite wet for Colorado, especially the San Juans and Front Range. An interesting climate geek fact: No Nino seasons have never been followed by La Nina since 1950 (using the Ocean Nino Index).
    In spite of my forecast of below normal snowfall, there is plenty of reason for hope. This is a weak signal. I have been wrong before! And there have been previous seasons similar to this year that have been quite snowy in Colorado: 1996-97 and 1992-93. Let it snow!

  • Joe Ramey

    Oh and I am certainly no guru. I’m just a weather forecaster with access to climate data and a spreadsheet, arguably a dangerous mix!