By Zach Butler, Meteorologist Updated 2 months ago September 22, 2023
2023-2024 Mount Hood Winter Forecast Preview
The 2022-2023 winter was a solid ski season for Mount Hood Meadows, Timberline, and the Mount Hood Skibowl. The snowpack was near normal for much of the season, with an above normal end to the season as spring storms brought consistent snow in March and April. With the upcoming El Niño, let's take a look at past El Niño seasons to see what we might have in store for the 2023-2024 winter.
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, especially this season with the upcoming El Niño.
Following the third La Niña in a row, sea-surface temperatures are warming with a strengthening El Niño event for the upcoming winter season.
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, the stronger the El Niño. The blue dots are above average, the white dots are average, and the orange dots are below average snowfall.
In general, El Niño winters tend to favor near normal to below normal snowfall in Oregon with the exception being southern Oregon along the California border. There is also some indication that a stronger El Niño favors closer to normal and even above normal snowfall.
Historical El Niño Seasons @ Mount Hood Resorts
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 52.3 inches at the Mt Hood Test Site SNOTEL on Mt Hood. I've found that the median SWE on Mt Hood during those El Niño years is 50.4 inches on March 31 or 96% compared to the 30-year normal.
SWE on March 31 During El Niño
- 1991-2020: 52.3" (30-year normal)
- 1982-1983: 68.9”
- 1986-1987: 58.5"
- 1991-1992: 34.4"
- 1997-1998: 55.0"
- 2002-2003: 44.0"
- 2009-2010: 42.0"
- 2015-2016: 50.0"
There are 3 out of the 7 El Niño years that produced above normal snow water equivalent (SWE) on Mt Hood on March 31.
Monthly Snowfall During Significant El Niño Winters
For timing, when looking at the change in SWE each month during the seven most recent significant El Niño episodes and comparing them against the 30-year median change in SWE for that month...
- November: 2.1" (230%)
- December: 8.6" (139%)
- January: 10.7" (97%)
- February: 10.6" (95%)
- March: 8.0" (93%)
- April: 9.7" (94%)
It tends to be that the early season (Nov-Dec) is more likely to be above normal, while mid to late season (Jan-Apr) is more likely to be normal to slightly below normal. Below is more of a breakdown for each monthly period per the seven El Niño episodes.
November can be hit or miss for early season turns with 4 out of 7 significant El Niño years above the normal and 3 out of 7 years below the normal. Some of the above normal years started off really well and some of the below normal years hardly had any snow, like the 2015-2016 winter with no snow in November.
December snowfall was above normal in 5 out of 7 significant El Niño years and below normal in 2 out of 7 years. Again, some of the above normal years were deep while the 2 below normal years hardly had any snow.
January snowfall was above normal in 3 out of 7 significant El Niño years, below normal in 3 out of 7 years, and normal in 1 year.
February and March are when snowfall between the El Niño years returns close to normal and slightly below normal. There were 3 out of 7 years that were slightly above normal and 4 out of 7 years that were below normal.
April keeps the trend going with 3 out of 7 years slightly above normal and 4 out of 7 years that were below normal.
2015-2016 El Niño Season
The most recent El Niño was somewhat of an anomaly to the trends described above. The season started very slow with no snow in November and very little in December. January shot back up to near normal and continued to be near normal for the remainder of the season.
- The January through April percent of average SWE was 95% in the 2015-2016 season
Temperatures During Significant El Niño Winters
While snowfall is what we pay attention to the most during ski season, temperatures are also a factor in terms of snow quality. It is especially important in Oregon where snow levels can be a significant factor in the winter season.
For temperatures, I examined the Government Camp weather station at the base of Timberline on Mt Hood. I compared winter seasonal and individual monthly temperatures during the seven most recent significant El Niño winters to the 30-year averages. Here are the average temperatures for each month during significant El Niño winters, with the departure from the 30-year average noted in parentheses.
- November: 36.4ºF (+0.7º)
- December: 30.5ºF (+0.5º)
- January: 32.8ºF (+1.3º)
- February: 34.6ºF (+2.9º)
- March: 36.1ºF (+1.7º)
- April: 39.4ºF (+1.6º)
Temperatures are likely to be warmer than normal throughout the winter season. Temperatures during the early season (Nov-Dec) are not as warm as mid to late season temperatures (Jan-Apr). For the prime winter months (Dec-Mar) the average temperature during significant El Niño seasons was +1.6ºF above the normal.
Overall, history tells us that Mt Hood Resort tends to be right around normal for snowfall during El Niño winters, with the potential for a stronger start and a weaker end to the season. Temperatures are likely to be above normal during El Niño winters.
An additional factor in the El Niño winters analyzed above is that they can be variable. While the average is near normal, several seasons were on the extreme ends of low to high snow seasons. While the statistics above are using the seven past El Niño winters, every winter can be different and will have its own unique impacts.
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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