For the record, I do not like long-range seasonal forecasts because they're usually not accurate. For proof, see the end of this post.
When a forecast is not accurate, you can't use it to plan, so it's not very helpful. This is why I like to wait until 7-10 days before a storm to estimate the general timing and location of a storm's snowfall, then refine the forecast until 2-3 days before the powder day, because that's when the forecasts become much more accurate.
That said, it's late August and we're a few months away from ski season, so we might as well look at the long range forecasts, mostly for entertainment value.
To start, there will be an El Nino this winter. For more about El Nino and what it might mean for snowfall over the next 6 months, read this article that I wrote last week.
While El Nino is a major factor that will determine snowfall patterns this winter, long-range weather models take into account many other variables when making 3-9 month forecasts. So let's look at what some of these long-range models say will happen between December and February.
Since we know that long-range forecasts aren't that reliable, forecasters try to stay away from looking at just one model's forecast and instead take an average of many models. This "ensemble" approach to forecasting can be more accurate than putting all of your forecasting eggs in one model basket.
So, without further ado, here's the winter forecast from an ensemble (group) of models that were made in the US, and another ensemble of models from other countries.
In general, the model ensembles show a similar forecast with snowy weather in the southwest, dry weather in the northwest, and snowy/rainy weather in the southeast. The model groupings differ for the northeast, however.
These forecasts look rather credible to me because they are similar to how El Nino generally impacts snowfall across the country.
However, remember that these ensembles are just averages of many models. It's also useful to see the forecast from each individual model. If the individual model forecasts are similar to one another, we have more confidence in the overall forecast. But if they've very different, than averaging together a wide variety of forecasts can provide a false sense of certainty and confidence.
So, what do the seven individual forecasts that make up the US ensemble look like?
All of the models show average to above average snowfall (green colors) for various parts of the southwest, so that's a pretty good bet.
Five of the 7 models (71%) show below-average snowfall for the northwest, so that's also a pretty good bet but definitely not a certainty.
Four of the seven models (57%) show above average snowfall for Tahoe, while three of the seven show below average snowfall. In other words, "We don't know!"
For Utah and Colorado, four of the seven models show this area as being on the edge of below-average snowfall, while other models show no preference for above or below average snow. So again, "We don't know!"
And in New England, the models are about split between below average, average, and above average snowfall. A roll of the dice.
Whether you like these forecasts or not, you may be wondering, "Why should I trust these models anyway?" That's a good question, and one that too many forecasters ignore.
One way to assess the trustworthiness of the models is to compare their forecasts with the snowfall patterns that usually result during an El Nino year. If the patterns match the models, confidence in the models increases. If the patterns don't match, then we're left scratching our heads and should likely put lower confidence in any long-term forecast. For the upcoming winter, these model forecasts generally do match snow patterns during an El Nino, so my confidence is decent.
Another way to assess the models is by looking back in time to understand the accuracy of their past forecasts. So let's do that.
Here is the US model ensemble forecast for last winter. Specifically, the forecast was made in August 2013 and covers December 2013, January 2014, and February 2014. The bottom image shows the actual precipitation during this time.
The result of the forecast? The average of the US models provided a very bad forecast.
It incorrectly forecasted above average snow in the northwest and Tahoe while snowfall was below average.
It correctly forecasted the above average snow around Montana, Wyoming, and northwest Colorado, but was incorrect for the southeast and mid-Atlantic where it forecasted below-average precipitation while in actuality the area was hit with heavy snow.
Moving on, did the International model ensemble do a better job?
Yes, the international model ensemble was a bit more accurate, but far from perfect.
It hinted at below average precipitation along the west coast, but wasn't nearly bold enough to forecast the dryness that actually transpired.
And it also showed above average precipitation in the eastern US, but the location was wrong by ~400 miles as the heavier precipitation was along and east of the Appalachian mountains, not in the Mississippi River valley. Four hundred miles might not seems like a big distance for a model that covers the entire globe, but it's a big deal to a ski area that is only a couple of miles across, at most.
So, can we trust the seasonal forecasts from these models?
Based on last year, definitely not. However, since there will (should!) be an El Nino for the upcoming season, long-range forecasts can be a bit more accurate because El Nino forces the weather to behave in somewhat more predictable ways.
For now, treat all of this as entertainment and not a cause for celebration or as an excuse to grab a beer due to despair. It's still August, which means that you should go out hiking or biking and get strong for the snow that we hope will come in deep for the winter ahead.
I love getting excited for the upcoming season just as much as you do. And a big part of that is the ski movies that premiere each fall.
Over the past decade, I've seen a lot of ski movies. That means a lot of scenes with huge cliffs, deep powder, and super-amazing-insane-sick-epic conditons (!).
As you can tell, lately I've felt a bit of fatigue around many of these movies because they each focus on being more epic than the last, and that's a tough proposition. Sometimes I think that storytelling and communicating the emotional element of the sport has suffered at the expense of just trying to get a sticker shot. Sorry if I'm a buzzkill:-)
Scott Gaffney, the director of the Matchstick Productions "Days of My Youth", told me this in a recent email exchange:
I think the fun element has been fading from ski movies these days because everyone is so focused on being cinematic and "epic."
To go against the grain, Scott's movie is more about showcasing the joy and fun of the sport. The trailer will leave you feeling happy, and I can't wait to see the full movie. Enjoy the next 4 minutes, and tell me what you'd like to see more of in ski movies in the comments.
A strong storm (for August, at least) will move through southern Canada and the northern Rockies this weekend. Temperatures will run 10-20 degrees below normal in parts of Wyoming and Montana. Break out the sweatshirts!
In Bozeman Montana, the coolest temperatures will likely hit on Sunday through Monday. Keep in mind that the temperature scale below, on the left, shows the temperature compared to average, NOT the actual temperature.
The chilly air will drop snow levels down to 10,000-12,000ft, so the highest of high peaks may get coated, especially if the precipitation falls during the colder nighttime hours.
We still have a few months before ski season really kicks into gear, but it’s never too early to enjoy a few flakes!
Over the last few months there’s been a lot of talk about El Nino and how it will affect snowfall this winter. The punchline is that yes, we’ll likely see some flavor of El Nino, and yes, it will likely shift snowfall patterns to favor some mountains and not others.
Since I like to keep you, the powder-obsessed readers of OpenSnow.com, informed with the most credible information about weather and snowfall, I reached out to El Nino himself for more details on his plans for the winter.
Joel Gratz: Thanks for your time today. I’ll keep the questions brief.
El Nino: Yes, let’s hurry this up. I’ve been pressed for time all summer.
JG: What’s been keeping you busy?
El Nino: It’s that Jim Cantore guy from The Weather Channel. He texts me every day, threatening to knee me in the stomach if I don’t give him my plans for the winter. He wants to scoop Al Roker. Dealing with him usually takes up my entire morning.
JG: Ok, moving on. How would you describe yourself?
El Nino: I am warmer than average water in the central Pacific Ocean. Technically, I am at least 0.5 degrees Celsius above average temperature for three months in a row. Sometimes when I’m in my strongest form I am up to 2 degrees C above average, but this doesn’t happen very often.
JG: Where are you located?
El Nino: I am in the Pacific Ocean between Indonesia and Ecuador. Scientists take my temperature in a few specific areas, with the biggest focus on my “Nino 3.4” region.
JG: Do you take on different forms?
El Nino: I get moody for sure. Sometimes I run hot in the center region (3.4), and other times it’s my east side that warms up the most (1+2 region). You can’t box me in as a simple character because my hot water isn’t always in the same place. I like to mix it up.
JG: Why should we care about you?
El Nino: Your audience of skiers should pay close attention. I usually become strongest during the northern hemisphere winter season. My hot water changes the position of thunderstorms and wind patterns over the Pacific Ocean. This in turn changes the wind patterns all over of the world, which affects the storm track and ultimately where snow will fall. See, I’m kinda a big deal.
JG: What have past El Ninos meant for snowfall?
El Nino: That’s a tricky question. It depends how strong I am and where my warmest water is located. For example, here are precipitation patterns during the past six El Nino winters:
See what I mean? Each of these winters was an “El Nino winter”, but the heavier precipitation fell in different spots. I’m a complicated guy, you know.
Don’t think you can judge me by a few thermometers dropped into me from your buoys. You don’t know me, man. You don’t know how hard it is to float out here, get a lot of attention from the media one year, then the next year I’m chopped liver and nobody calls, nobody cares. It’s tough.
JG: Wow. You do have a hard life. Do you have any friends out there to keep you company?
El Nino: Well, despite my self-proclaimed status as “kinda a big deal”, I do have some friends in other ocean areas. One of them is my buddy up the street in the north Pacific Ocean. Her name is the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation”, or “PDO” for short. And I have another acquaintance over in the central Atlantic Ocean called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or “AMO”. She’s cool as well, but the distance between us is a real strain on our friendship. You should really talk with all of us, because it’s the combination of me, the PDO and the AMO that control the storm track and where the snow falls.
JG: Gotcha, thanks for the tip. So how strong are you going to be this season?
El Nino: I’m trying to muster up some power though it’s coming slowly. Earlier this spring people thought I’d be super strong by now, but that’s not the case. By the time winter rolls around, I’ll likely be in a weak state, maybe moderate if I can swing it. This generally means that I’ll be 0.5-1.5 degrees Celsius above average.
JG: So the million dollar question is what will you do to our snowfall this winter?
El Nino: You know I can’t give you the details right now as it depends how strong I am and the location of my warmest water. But I can say that in general I favor above-average snowfall for the southwest US, below-average snowfall for the northwest, and perhaps above average for the east coast.
JG: So should I tell OpenSnow.com readers to plan ski trips around this information?
El Nino: Ha, probably not. The atmosphere is temperamental and doesn’t always follow my lead. I will say though that mountains in the southwestern part of the US should do pretty well this year. During the past 6 winters when I was present, snowfall in the southwest was above-average 4 years, average 1 year, and below average 1 year. So the odds point toward above-average snowfall (67%, or 4 out of 6). Yes, I’m looking at you southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah, and southern Colorado.
JG: Thanks for your time! I’ll check back in September for an update.
El Nino: You’re welcome. Call anytime -- I’m not going anywhere for a while.
JG: Can you share a picture of yourself?
El Nino: I’ll do one better: I made an autobiographical video a few years ago. Watch it here.
Here are two pieces of gear that changed my skiing. They might help you as well.
1) Wide skis.
My previous skis were 108mm underfoot, which many people consider a mid-fat. Pretty good on groomers, pretty good in powder. This season I got a pair of skis that are 126mm underfoot. They are really fat, and I assumed that I would only use them on a few deep powder days. That was wrong. I used them on the majority of days when there was any fresh snow.
Fat skis are to powder what shaped skis are to groomers. Each makes the experience easier and more enjoyable. I've been skiing for 28 years, since I was 4 years old, and during that time I never cared much about gear. But my new powder skis made me realize how important gear selection is. In short, multiple friends told me that I was skiing better this year than any other year, and the only change I made was new skis.
If you are thinking about buying wider skis for next season, here are two tips.
First, find the lightest skis. Fat skis won't make skiing powder more enjoyable if they tire out your legs. In fact, my current 126mm wide skis are lighter than my 108mm skis. Bring a scale with you to weigh the skis in the shop if you can't find the specs online. Seriously, weight matters, and that applies to bindings as well, so find a light pair that won't weigh you down (I used the Salomon STH12).
Second, look for a geometry where the tail of the skis is narrower than the waist of the ski. This helps you get out of turns with little effort, instead of being locked into a turn or feeling like you get "ejected" out of a turn. The width of my skis are 151mm at the tip, 126mm at the waist, and 116mm at the tail.
What are the benefits of a light, fat powder ski?
You'll be less tired because you'll be doing less work (the wider ski surfs over the snow). Sure, you won't get as many faceshots because the ski won't dive into the snow as far. But I found that I'm OK with that tradeoff since I can now ski 1,500ft of powder without getting tired legs.
You also might find tree skiing to be easier. A narrower tail allows you to whip your skis around quickly as they are not locked into a turn, and this added mobility will help you zoom through the trees without needing to scrub speed. This was a game-changer for me. I have always enjoyed tree skiing, but was never very good at it beause I couldn't turn my skis fast enough. I no longer have that problem.
And you also might enjoy getting some air since you have a wider ski to land on. I am not good in the air and rarely land any jump, so I've always shied away from going airborne. But a bigger landing platform means fewer falls, and that means you'll try little jumps more often, and that means you might get the hang of being in the air and start to enjoy it. At least that was my experience.
Of course this is all just my opinion, and your experience might differ. But I wanted to share my thoughts because these wide skis helped me have a lot more fun this season.
That's me enjoying fresh tracks on wide powder skis at Vail.
A special thanks to Wagner Custom Skis for getting me setup with a ski made just or me.
2) Lighter Bindings.
I just talked about how a light setup can help you ski longer without getting tired.
I know many of you are like me and enjoy spending time in the backcountry, which means you also need a light uphill binding (Alpine Touring, or AT binding).
I've gone through three AT bindings. My first pair eight years ago were the Fritschi Freerides. They were relatively inexpensive, so they were a great starter binding. But they pre-released a lot and also didn't ski very well (they felt a bit flimsy).
My second pair were the Marker Barons. They skied like a regular binding, and I put them on my everyday ski, so I used them at resorts in powder, ripping groomers, and going uphill in the backcountry. While they skied well, they were heavy on the uphill and cumbersome to switch between uphill and downhill modes.
Then this season, I started using a pair of Dynafit Radical FT bindings on my wide powder skis. These bindings are about 70% lighter than the Marker Baron's, so skinning uphill feels much easier.
Dynafit Radical FT Bindings on my powder skis.
These bindings pivot from your toes, which provides a much more natural walking/skinning motion. And, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they skied downhill just as well as any other binding I've used. They did pre-release on me once when I hit buried crust at a resort at high speed, so they're not perfect (no binding is). But that's been the only issue, and I've felt comfortable with them at all other times, even in narrow chutes and at high speed.
Straightlining a chute at Berthoud Pass on my Dynafit AT bindings. I was going fast, and the bindings were rock solid even though they were the lightest binding I'd even skied in the backcountry. Thanks to Joel Bettner, coach of the CU Freestyle Ski Team, for giving me a pep talk and getting me to take this line.
There seems to be a progression to backcountry ski gear. The Fritschis and Barrons get you into the sport to see if you like it. And if you do enjoy earning your turns, eventually you might upgrade to the Dynafits. Again, weight is a big deal, and making my setup lighter has allowed me to enjoy my time on the hill (both going up and going down) without getting as tired as I used to be.
A special thanks to the crew at Dynafit for getting me into this lighter binding!
Sometimes I get free gear from manufacturers and free skiing from resorts and cat/heli operations. This is awesome. But of course this means that there is a HUGE conflict of interest when I write reviews about the gear or ski operations. I hope that you believe that my reviews are truthful, and that I would never undermine my credibility and career in the ski industry over a free piece of gear or a trip. And I hope that my reviews will spark your interest and that you'll do more research on your own to form your own opinions. As always, if you have thoughts or questions, you can get in touch with me directly at this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org