Weather patterns keeping snow away in Colorado’s Rockies
EAGLE COUNTY — You’re right. It’s been a while since we’ve had significant snow. And it may be a while yet before we get any more significant snowfall.
After a brief storm that forecasters expected to bring an inch or two of snow to the Vail Valley, weather forecasters say the area will have mostly sunny skies — along with cooler temperatures — until at least the beginning of next week. The forecast for Glenwood Springs to Aspen calls for little if any snow any time soon.
That’s the bad news. The good news, at least for the moment, is that the snowpack in this part of the Rockies remains close to its historic averages, thanks in large part to big snowstorms that hit in November and December. And the fact is that a normal winter in the Rockies will occasionally have a period — or two or three — during which snowfall is scant over the course of two or three weeks.
We’re currently in a long-ish period of little to no snowfall. And, forecasters say, we’re stuck in that pattern for a while.
At the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction, forecaster Paul Frisbie said there’s currently a double whammy working against snowfall in this part of the Rockies.
The first is a persistent high-pressure system over California. That system has brought warmer temperatures to California. The system is also keeping cooler air mostly to the north.
“There’s pretty good (atmospheric) moisture, but nothing really to get us going in terms of snowfall,” Frisbie said.
Also contributing to the lack of snowfall is the fact that the eastern portion of the U.S. has been seeing cold air coming south from Canada.
Joel Gratz, the Colorado meteorologist for OpenSnow.com, said the current weather patterns have put Colorado on the edge of current storm tracks as they come out of Canada. On a global scale, the problem is one of fairly small degrees. A shift of just 100 or 200 miles in the storm track can make a big difference in whether or not the Rockies see snow, Gratz said.
“Over the weekend, if this current pattern shifts to the east, we won’t see snow in the northern Rockies,” Gratz said. Again, a shift of 100 miles can make a big difference, but when a forecaster is working with very large swaths of the planet, it’s difficult to pin down how far west or east a weather pattern will establish itself.
That’s one of the reasons Gratz said these days he has a little more patience with his forecasts.
“We’ll often get a shift, but it doesn’t establish as fast as we think it will,” Gratz said. “I don’t want to call a shift until it really moves into place.”
All forecasters will acknowledge that weather predictions get much more uncertain more than seven or 10 days into the future. Further complicating the forecasting this season is the water in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of South America. When water in that area is warmer than normal, it’s called an “El Niño” pattern. Cooler-than-normal water temperatures in that area define a “La Niña” pattern.
Frisbie said an El Niño pattern generally brings more moisture to North America, but those storms tend to track across the Southwest. La Niña patterns are somewhat drier, but tend to bring more storms through the Pacific Northwest. The big snow season of 2010 — 2011 was a La Niña year.
This season, the water temperatures in that part of the Pacific have stayed near average, and a shift now wouldn’t have an appreciable effect on future storms through the rest of the season. Near-average temperatures also makes weather patterns tougher to predict.
The good news, Frisbie said, is that the current pattern will break at some point, freeing up storms to again track across the Rockies.
For powder hounds, of course, that break can’t come too soon.
Gratz, whose voice mail message states he may well be out sampling the snow he forecasts, is in that company.
“Whenever it happens, the fact is we need more snow,” he said.
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