New Mexico Daily Snow

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By Julien Ross, Forecaster Posted 3 months ago November 3, 2023

2023-2024 New Mexico Winter Forecast Preview

Summary

For the upcoming winter, a strengthening El Niño event looks to be in store. What does this mean for the 2023-2024 season in New Mexico? Let's take a deep dive into some historical snowfall data to see what insights we can glean for the upcoming strong El Niño winter. 

Update

Welcome to the New Mexico Daily Snow for the 2023-2024 season! I am super stoked to be back and will be posting daily from now through mid-April.

The 2022-2023 winter was the tale of two halves for New Mexico with the northern mountains enjoying above-average snowpack and the best ski season since 2018-2019, while the southern mountains struggled with the third consecutive year of below-normal snowfall in a triple La Niña.

As we look ahead to the 2023-2024 winter season, it's important to remember that any winter outlook will contain an inherent degree of uncertainty. However, there are a few clues that we can keep an eye on thanks to everyone's favorite weather phenomenon: El Niño.

For the upcoming winter season, an El Niño looks to be in store, and better yet, current sea surface temperatures are showing a strengthening El Niño event.

El Niño, Explained

The term El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate phenomenon linked to periodic warming in sea-surface temperatures across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.

El Niño represents the warm phase of the ENSO cycle and means that the ocean water temperatures are warmer than average.

Ski Season Snowfall vs. El Niño

The map below shows winter snowfall during seven significant El Niño episodes across the United States. The higher the number in red, the stronger the El Niño. The blue dots are above average, the white dots are average, and the orange dots are below average snowfall.

snow el nino 2023 2024

The relationship tends to be mostly favorable for El Niño and snowfall in New Mexico with most of the state at or above average precipitation during the winter months. 

Of course, the devil is in the details, and thanks to some historical snowfall data that we have access to in the Land of Enchantment, we can take a deeper dive to perhaps glean more insights for the upcoming strong El Niño winter. 

A Note About Historical Snowfall Data Sources for New Mexico 

For most mountains across the United States, we rely on SNOTEL data to be able to compare past El Niño seasons with the 30-year normal. Unfortunately, many of the SNOTEL sites in New Mexico that are near ski resorts don't go back 30 years or even enough years for us to have significant data. For example, the SNOTEL site within the Ski Santa Fe is an excellent data source but only goes back to 1996 so we don't have data for the 1982-1983, 1986-1987, or 1991-1992 strong El Niño seasons. The SNOTEL site near Ski Apache started in 2010 so has even more limited data.

There are SNOTEL sites near Red River and Pajarito that do go back far enough for us to compare all seven strong El Niño years which is fantastic.

The SNOTEL site within Taos Ski Valley only goes back to 2010. However, we have a goldmine of historical data thanks to Taos Ski Valley's Ski Patrol Weather Site which has a compilation of annual snowfall totals going back to 1967. So let's jump in!

Historical El Niño Seasons @ Taos Ski Valley

The median annual snowfall at Taos Ski Valley's Poco weather station between 1991 and 2023 is 162 inches. The median annual snowfall for the seven most recent significant El Niños is 184 inches, or 114% compared to the 34-year median.

Snowfall at Taos Ski Valley During El Niño

  • 1991-2023: 162" (Median value across the last 34-years)
  • 1982-1983: 196"
  • 1986-1987: 192"
  • 1991-1992: n/a
  • 1997-1998: 134"
  • 2002-2003: 184"
  • 2009-2010: 204"
  • 2015-2016: 134"

Four out of the six El Niño years we have data for produced above-normal snowfall at Taos Ski Valley.

Historical El Niño Seasons @ Red River

The 30-year median snow water equivalent (SWE) on March 31 at the Red River Pass SNOTEL station near Red River is 6.8 inches. I've found that the median SWE near Red River during the seven strongest El Niño years is 9.5 inches on March 31 or 140% compared to the 30-year normal.

SWE on March 31 During El Niño near Red River

  • 1991-2020: 6.8" (30-year normal)
  • 1982-1983: 10.7"
  • 1986-1987: 12.5"
  • 1991-1992: 9.5"
  • 1997-1998: 7.1"
  • 2002-2003: 7.6"
  • 2009-2010: 10.2"
  • 2015-2016: 0" 

Six out of the seven El Niño years produced well above or just above normal snow water equivalent (SWE) near Red River on March 31.

For timing below is the November through March change during the seven most recent significant El Niño episodes and comparing them against the 30-year median change in SWE for that month:

  • November: 1.3" (72%)
  • December: 2.1" (89%)
  • January: 1.8" (104%)
  • February: 1.7" (101%)
  • March: 2.4" (145%)

For Red River Pass, it tends to be the middle winter and spring months that are at or above normal, and the early season months below normal.

Historical El Niño Seasons @ Pajarito

The 30-year median snow water equivalent (SWE) on March 31 at the Quemazon SNOTEL station near Pajarito is 3.8 inches. I've found that the median SWE near Pajarito during the seven strongest El Niño years is 11.5 inches on March 31 or 303% compared to the 30-year normal.

SWE on March 31 During El Niño near Pajarito

  • 1991-2020: 3.8" (30-year normal)
  • 1982-1983: 15.5"
  • 1986-1987: 15.9"
  • 1991-1992: 12.4"
  • 1997-1998: 8.3"
  • 2002-2003: 6.5"
  • 2009-2010: 11.5"
  • 2015-2016: 0"

Six out of the seven El Niño years produced substantially above normal snow water equivalent (SWE) near Pajarito on March 31.

For timing below is the November through March change during the seven most recent significant El Niño episodes and comparing them against the 30-year median change in SWE for that month:

  • November: 1.3" (100%)
  • December: 3.8" (134%)
  • January: 3.2" (138%)
  • February: 2.3" (147%)
  • March: 0.8" (300%)

For Pajarito, most months in the season tend to be above normal and increase more in the late winter and early spring months. November tends to be at or near normal. 

Historical El Niño Seasons @ Ski Santa Fe

Due to the Santa Fe SNOTEL site only going back to 1996, we can only look at the four most recent strong El Niños compared to the 28-year median between 1996 and 2020. The 28-year median snow water equivalent (SWE) on March 31 at the Santa Fe SNOTEL station was 13.4 inches. I found that the median SWE at Ski Santa Fe during the four El Niño years was 18.7 inches on March 31 or 140% compared to the 28-year normal.

SWE on March 31 During El Niño at Ski Santa Fe

  • 1996-2023: 13.4" (28-year normal)
  • 1982-1983: n/a
  • 1986-1987: n/a
  • 1991-1992: n/a
  • 1997-1998: 19.3"
  • 2002-2003: 18.1"
  • 2009-2010: 20.7"
  • 2015-2016: 16.7"

Four out of the four El Niño years we have data for produced well above normal snow water equivalent (SWE) for Ski Santa Fe on March 31.

In terms of timing, below is the October through April change during the four most recent significant El Niño episodes comparing them against the 28-year median change in SWE for that month:

  • October: 0.2" (25%)
  • November: 1.6" (65%)
  • December: 6.6" (137%)
  • January: 1.7" (117%)
  • February: 3.9" (124%)
  • March: 4.9" (140%)
  • April: 0.5" (139%)

For Ski Santa Fe, it tends to be the middle winter and spring months above normal and the early season months below normal. 

Historical El Niño Seasons @ Ski Apache

Due to the Sierra Blanca SNOTEL site only going back to 2010, we can only look at the three most recent strong El Niños compared to the 20-year median between 2010 and 2020. So this is the least statistically significant data set we have. The 20-year median snow water equivalent (SWE) on March 31 at the Sierra Blanca SNOTEL station near Ski Apache was .8 inches. I found that the median SWE near Ski Apache during the three El Niño years was 10.8 inches on March 31 or 1350% compared to the 20-year normal.

SWE on March 31 During El Niño near Ski Apache

  • 2010-2020: .8" (20-year normal)
  • 1982-1983: n/a
  • 1986-1987: n/a
  • 1991-1992: n/a
  • 1997-1998: n/a
  • 2002-2003: 10.8"
  • 2009-2010: 29.4"
  • 2015-2016: 0"

Two of the three El Niño years we have data for produced substantially above normal snow water equivalent (SWE) for Ski Apache on March 31.

For timing, below is the November through March change during the three most recent significant El Niño episodes and comparing them against the 20-year median change in SWE for that month:

  • November: 0.3" (28%)
  • December: 5.6" (138%)
  • January: 8.3" (247%)
  • February: 2.2" (178%)
  • March: -2.0" (2700%)

For Ski Apache, it tends to be the middle winter and spring months above normal with a particular spike in March. November tends to be below normal. 

2015-2016 El Niño Season

The data outlined above shows that the most recent El Niño in 2015-2016 produced a mixed bag of above-normal snowfall at Ski Santa Fe but below-normal snowfall elsewhere across New Mexico.

The high variance in the most recent 2015-2016 El Niño season is also verified by the watershed snowpack status on March 31, 2016 courtesy of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Above we see the below-normal snowpack in the central and eastern Sangre de Cristos and the Jemez mountains, near-normal snowpack in the far northern Sangres in Colorado, and a sliver of above-normal in the southern Sangres around Ski Santa Fe.

Overall, history tells us:

  • New Mexico tends to be above-normal for snowfall during El Niño winters.

  • New Mexico tends to be above-normal for snowfall during the middle winter and spring months of El Niño seasons, but below-normal in the early season months.

  • The above-normal trend could be even more significant for mountains lower in elevation or at more southern latitudes like Pajarito and Ski Apache. 

  • The above-normal spike in March could be even more significant for mountains lower in elevation or at more southern latitudes like Pajarito and Ski Apache. 

But history also tells us that this good fortune is no guarantee and, as demonstrated above, there is also a precedent for below-normal snowfall in strong El Niños winters in New Mexico.

The El Niño winters analyzed above show a high degree of variability with several seasons being on the extreme ends of low to high snow seasons. It is a beautiful reminder that every winter can be different and will have its own unique impacts.  

It will be interesting and fun to track the upcoming season alongside the monthly data from the previous strong El Niños. We know that when it comes to finding the best conditions, it’s all about timing. But even though we have the broad historical data trends above, to have the best chance of enjoying the deepest powder, our recommendation is to plan a trip 7-10 days in advance.

Sometimes, longer-range forecasts can identify possible storms 1-2 weeks (or longer) in advance, but often, forecast confidence in the details of each storm only begins to increase when the system is about one week away or closer.

Here's to a great upcoming season and I look forward to sharing this journey with you all. Thanks so much for reading.

¡Viva la nieve!

¡Viva Nuevo México!

JULIEN ROSS
[email protected]

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About Our Forecaster

Julien Ross

Forecaster

Julien was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico and was introduced to skiing at age 7 through the public schools subsidized ski program at Ski Santa Fe. It was love at first turn and Julien has been chasing deep powder and good mogul lines ever since. Julien grew up fascinated by weather and studied physical geography with a focus on meteorology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

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