Warm temps, El Niño pattern make ski resorts anxious

Snow melts off the north slope of Red Mountain, as seen from the Wulfsohn Trail above the Glenwood Springs Community Center, as warm temperatures and a lack of new snow are expected to continue through the week.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

El Niño-influenced weather patterns that have brought much-needed rains to drought-stricken Southern California have also left Colorado ski resorts high and dry heading into the critical holiday season after a spate of early snowstorms allowed many ski areas to open ahead of schedule.

The culprit, according to Joe Ramey, a forecaster and climate specialist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, is the warmer-than-normal sea temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean that define El Niño years.

“Through November, we had storms coming in from the Pacific Northwest, plowing in across Seattle and the northern Rockies and grazing northern Colorado,” Ramey explained. “But that pattern has broken down now.”

In its place is a more typical El Niño pattern where storms are now tracking due east off the Pacific and across Southern California and the desert Southwest.

“That tends to leave the central mountains and northwest Colorado drier than normal,” Ramey said.

That’s not to say the same pattern will dictate the entire winter season, but it has been the trend in other El Niño years, most recently 2009-10 and 2006-07, he said.

Conversely, years when eastern Pacific sea temperatures are colder, known as La Niña, tend to produce more snow in the central and northern Rockies, while neutral years, such as the past two winters, “tend to be wild card years,” Ramey said.

At any rate, a lack of new snow since Nov. 26 and forecasts calling for daytime highs in the mid- to upper 40s this week with little chance of precipitation until next weekend prompted Sunlight Mountain Resort south of Glenwood Springs to suspend lift operations until Friday.

“We’re trying to conserve the snow we do have, and the less skiers we have on it until then means we can leave that snow intact,” said Sunlight spokeswoman Jennie Spillane.

Sunlight was able to open for an early sneak-preview weekend the day after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 28, and had its official opening day on Dec. 5 as planned, with a base snow depth of 13 inches.

“We do plan to open again for the season this Friday, and what snow we have should stick around,” Spillane said.

“This (four-day closure) is only for the safety of our guests as our snow totals are not at their most significant levels,” Sunlight said in a statement issued on opening day.

In the meantime, hiking or skinning up the mountain is also discouraged so as to maintain the snow base and because the skiable terrain is limited.

“We still have pretty typical early season conditions,” Spillane said. “Everyone who was out there this weekend was having fun, and no one was really expecting powder.”

At the upper end of the Roaring Fork Valley, the Aspen Skiing Co. was also keeping an eye on the weather as it prepares for the scheduled opening of Highlands and Buttermilk on Saturday.

“We had a crew over checking out Buttermilk today,” SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said of the lower-elevation terrain at that area.

“Highlands is good to go,” he said. “But it’s pretty obvious when we have a long, dry, warm spell it affects the amount of terrain we can open. What’s already open is still hanging in there.”

Aspen Mountain has been open since Nov. 22 and is maintaining a natural base of 14 to 15 inches, while Snowmass opened as scheduled on Thanksgiving Day and has a snow depth of 14 inches midway and 26 on top.

Meanwhile, the forecast calls for the current dry and warm conditions to continue until later this week, when another weak system moves in off the Pacific, Ramey said.

“That should impact us on Saturday and might persist into Sunday,” he said. “But right not it looks like the snow levels will remain pretty high (in elevation) all the way up the I-70 corridor to Vail, with a rain and snow mix and not much accumulation.”

Temperatures should remain below freezing at night and should cool during the day over the coming weekend, helping to maintain current snow conditions, he said.

Another storm system is looming on the horizon for the middle part of next week, Ramey said.

With its planned reopening this weekend, Sunlight intends to proceed with its ski demo days Saturday and Sunday, featuring the latest skis from locally made Meier Skis, as well as Volkl, K2, Dynastar, Armada and Salomon.

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