By Alan Smith, Meteorologist Posted 2 months ago September 8, 2023
2023-2024 Fernie Winter Forecast Preview
The 2022-2023 winter was below average in terms of snowfall for Fernie, with a strong start to the season in December followed by a relatively quiet mid to late season.
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.
Following three straight winters of La Niña, we are now heading into an El Niño this season.
In fact, current sea surface temperatures as of late August 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.
Winter temperatures tend to be warmer than average across Western and Central Canada during El Niño cycles, but precipitation and snowfall signals vary by region.
Confidence is increasing that we could see a strong El Niño this season, which would officially occur if sea surface temperatures in the Niño-3.4 region of the equatorial Pacific Ocean are at least 1.5ºC warmer than average for three consecutive, overlapping 3-month periods.
We have identified seven significant El Niño episodes that have occurred since snowpack records began at the Morrissey Ridge Snow Survey Site in 1984 (located across the Elk Valley, just opposite Fernie Alpine Resort).
Let's take a look at these significant El Niño seasons to see if we can identify any snow trends at Fernie.
Historical El Niño Seasons @ Fernie
After looking back at the seven most recent significant El Niño years and comparing them against the 30-year median snow water equivalent (SWE) on March 31 of 677 millimeters (mm) at the Morrissey Ridge snow survey site near Fernie, I've found that the median SWE near Fernie during those El Niño years is 675 mm on March 31 or 100% compared to the 30-year normal.
SWE on March 31 During El Niño
- 1991-2020: 677 mm (30-year normal)
- 1986-1987: 723 mm
- 1994-1995: 851 mm
- 1997-1998: 664 mm
- 2002-2003: 675 mm
- 2009-2010: 503 mm
- 2015-2016: 722 mm
Three out of the seven El Niño years produced above-normal snow water equivalent (SWE) near Fernie on March 31.
For timing, there's an interesting signal when looking at the change in SWE each month during the six most recent significant El Niño episodes and comparing them against the 30-year median change in SWE for that month.
- October: 20 mm (103%)
- November: 125 mm (123%)
- December: 109 mm (87%)
- January: 157 mm (99%)
- February: 86 mm (88%)
- March: 179 mm (144%)
It tends to be that early and late-season snowfall (November and March) is more likely to be above average, while mid-winter snowfall (Dec-Jan-Feb) is more likely to be near or below average.
Based on all winters, January is Fernie's snowiest month on average, but during significant El Niño winters, March tends to be the snowiest month.
Temperatures at Fernie During El Niño
Based on data from the Fernie Townsite weather station, there is a strong correlation between El Niño and above-normal winter temperatures. Fernie occasionally experiences rain events during a typical winter season, so the above-average temperature signal during El Niño winters may favor more rain events than usual.
Overall, history tells us that Fernie tends to be right around normal for snowfall during significant El Niño events, with the potential for a stronger finish to the season.
Also, temperatures are likely to be warmer than normal during significant El Niño winters, which may indicate higher snow levels (on average) and more rain events compared to non-El Niño winters.
Having said all of this, for skiers and snowboarders, keep in mind that when it comes to finding the best conditions, it’s all about timing. To have the best chance of enjoying the deepest powder, our recommendation is to book 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.
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Alan Smith, Meteorologist