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Long range weather forecasts stink – a look back at the winter snow forecast for 2016-2017

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We will remember the 2016-2017 season as the time that California measured record snowfall and bounced back from a multi-year drought.

We'll also remember Jackson Hole's record high snowfall (EDIT: see Tony Crocker's comment below about Jackson Hole, which had a record year in 2016-2017 based on the 1998-2017 mid-mountain history, but was likely not a record based on the 50+ year snowfall history closer to the summit), and many deep powder days in the Northwest, Utah, and Colorado, especially during the heart of the season in December and January.

However, none of these situations were well predicted months in advance, when forecasters released their outlooks in the fall of 2016.

Hey Joel, didn't you write a similar article last season?

Good memory!

In the fall of 2016, I looked back at the predictions for the 2015-2016 season and concluded that most forecasters were not accurate in their outlooks for the season ahead (find the 2016 analysis here: http://opsw.co/2xfyLHw).

Fast forward one year to now, the fall of 2017, and I am basically writing the same article as I did last season.

There will likely be a time when multi-month-ahead forecasts have consistent accuracy, but that time is not now. As Professor Powder will mention later in this article, that time might be many decades into the future

Let's look at specific forecasts to see what predictions were correct and which predictions were not correct.

Holding the forecasters accountable

The graphics I'll show below do not present 1-5 month forecasts in a favorable light. My intention with this article is not to embarrass any single forecaster or group, but rather to point out that 1-5 month forecasts are hard and that you should put almost no trust in them.

Two seasons ago, we attempted our own seasonal outlook here at OpenSnow. It didn't go well (http://opsw.co/2xfyLHw). Based on our lackluster performance, and the fact that these outlooks are generally not useful, we stopped making them in favor of focusing our time on finding more valuable data for you.

So, if these seasonal outlooks are not useful, what should you do to find the deepest powder? I discuss my strategy at the end of this piece.

NOAA's forecast

NOAA is the parent organization of the National Weather Service. NOAA and the NWS are the foundation of modern weather prediction, from radar and satellite data to the models that we often use. Without them, OpenSnow and most other weather services would not exist. I am thankful for what they do, but their seasonal predictions are not their most useful product.

Here is a link to the original forecastTheir temperature forecast was too warm across the west, especially in California and the Northwest.

Their precipitation forecast was waaaay off in the western US. They were accurate in predicting above-average precipitation in the northern Rockies (such as in Jackson Hole, Wyoming), but they completely missed the above-average precipitation that dumped heaps of snow in California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

WeatherBell

Weatherbell produces forecasts for many industries and also provides fantastic weather forecast maps of nearly every weather model for $25 per month. I like reading how their forecasters think about the weather pattern ... but, they got the winter 2016-2017 forecast wrong (link to original forecast).

Weatherbell predicted below-average snowfall in the west, and the opposite was true.

Farmers Almanac

Like last year, it looks like their secret formula was wrong (link to original forecast). California was neither "cold,dry" or "Mild,dry". And neither were the central and southern Rockies. All of these areas received a ton of snow!

Accuweather

The forecast was for "Warm & Dry" in the southwest, which was opposite of reality. Here is a link to original forecast.

OnTheSnow

Before launching OpenSnow in 2011, I used to write occasional articles for OnTheSnow. Now we are in direct competition, but I do appreciate their early support. For the last four years, Meteorologist Chris Tomer has been writing forecasts for OnTheSnow. Chris is a TV meteorologist based in Denver. He’s a good forecaster and a globally-experienced mountaineer. But, like the others who predicted a typical La Nina pattern with above-average precipitation only in the northwest, he got it wrong as the southwest was not dry. (link to original forecast).

What Dr. Powder says about seasonal forecasts

Jim Steenburgh is literally the doctor of powder.

He is a Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Utah and wrote the book about how and where to find the best snow, called “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth”. If you are addicted to powder like I am, you should buy his book. It’s meant for a general audience and is NOT technical.

I had a chance to work with and learn from Jim during graduate school but chose to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder instead. Jim still reminds me that Utah has statistically better snow, and the statistics don't lie when it comes to the combination of deep and light snow.

Anyway, here is what Jim said about long-range forecasts in a blog post during the spring of 2016:

It's time to face facts.

First, the skill and utility of seasonal outlooks, whether they show weighting of the odds or pick an outcome (e.g., below average, average, or above average), remains limited for many applications.

I suspect we will see improvement in coming years and decades, but where we are in seasonal prediction today is about where we were in weather forecasting in the 1960s and 70s. The models are crude and we're relying too much on past analogs and human intuition.

Ultimately, these outlooks are going to improve, but even then, we must guard against converting those probabilities into deterministic outcomes (e.g., increased odds of above average precipitation equals above average precipitation).

Second, we need to be more cautious about pushing analogs based on past events too far. A few months ago, many people were using the past two super El Ninos as analogs for this coming winter. A sample size of two is simply too small.

Finally, if you are skiing in northern Utah, you should just stop looking at seasonal forecasts altogether. SEASONAL OUTLOOKS ARE UTTERLY AND TOTALLY VALUELESS FOR ANTICIPATING WHAT KIND OF SKI SEASON WE ARE GOING TO HAVE IN NORTHERN UTAH. Next October, don't waste your time on this stuff. Wax your skis and be happy.”

Closing thoughts on seasonal outlooks

Some long-range forecasts can provide value, but most will turn out to be incorrect. One day, perhaps in 20-40 years, this won’t be the case. But for now, 3-6+ month forecasts are not something that meteorologists do very well.

It is fun to look at the seasonal forecasts and learn about the logic that is used to create them. But don’t take the forecasts too seriously, and save them so you can look back in 6 months to see if they were accurate:-)

My strategy to finding the deepest powder

If you want the highest odds of deep powder, here's what I would do.

  • First, live in a location that's close to mountains with the deepest snow. If powder makes you happy, you'll figure out how to accomplish this. I know that jobs/houses/kids/family might give you a good excuse to live far away from the mountains, and that's fine. But, if skiing deep powder makes you so happy that you can remember that one amazing day five years ago, maybe you owe it to your yourself to get to the mountains for the winter.

  • Second, if you can't live close to deep powder, wait until 7-10 days before booking your trip. At that lead time, you'll know which mountains have a suitable base depth, and the 7-10 forecast is usually good enough to point you in the right direction.

  • Third, even if you wait until 7-10 days before booking your trip, consider only booking to a general area. Fly to a central airport, reserve a car, and chase (ie. drive many hours) to where the powder will be. This makes it possible to execute last-minute adjustments.

  • Fourth, if you have to book a trip far in advance, pick locations that statistics show have the deepest powder. Buy Jim's book to learn a bit more about this. Small spoiler – Japan in January and February is tough to beat.

  • And fifth, if you can't execute any of the above strategies, change your expectations for your ski trip. Focus on things you can control, like traveling with good people and finding unique activities that will be fun regardless of the weather (snowmobiling, skate skiing, brewery tours, backcountry touring).

All Access

Love powder? We do too, and that’s why we created the OpenSnow All-Access Pass.

Being an All-Access member allows you to see our 10-day forecasts, time-lapse webcams for tracking exactly when fresh snow has fallen, and the ability to receive custom alerts to know when powder days are approaching. All of this costs just $19 for one full year (365 days) and works on our website as well as our iPhone and Android apps.

In other words, one year of getting the best information about powder will cost you about the same as you’ll spend on one lunch at most resorts.

Your All-Access membership directly supports our small team of forecasters and developers, and you can find out more here.

Email Alerts

If you’d like to get alerted when we publish future articles like this one, and also get access to deals and contests, sign up for our email list. It’s free, and you can unsubscribe at any time. Sign up by clicking here —> http://opsw.co/2bao4gA

Keep dreaming of future powder days!

JOEL GRATZ

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