Skiers across the globe are getting itchy feet as the winter season draws closer – the question on everybody’s lips is, will it be a good winter for snow?
On social media, there’s excitement at the first snowfalls on high slopes in Europe and North America. In the Alps, glacier ski areas have started their 23/24 seasons already – with Sölden in Austria the latest – and, in Colorado, snowmaking guns have begun to fire.
While some ski areas in California and Utah, which had incredible snowfalls last season, might quietly be hoping for a little less snowy disruption, low-lying ski areas in the Alps are hoping for a colder and whiter start than last.
With all eyes on the forecast, there’s much chatter around the El Niño phenomenon that is brewing in the eastern Pacific and what it might mean for snowfall in North America and Europe.
What is El Niño?
El Niño (translated from Spanish to “the boy”) is a climate pattern that develops from the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean close to the Americas. It happens randomly every two to seven years and typically lasts nine to 12 months, usually peaking in the winter months.
First identified by fishermen in the seventeenth century, scientists are still uncertain what causes it. It tends to bring milder weather to some parts, and colder to others. As well as North America, it impacts ski slopes in Japan and in the southern hemisphere, and, to some, extent the whole world.
What is La Niña?
La Niña (“the girl”) is the reverse phenomenon, with unusual cooling of surface waters in the eastern Pacific. Areas that get more snow during El Niño tend to get less, on average, and vice versa. The full cycle is known as ENSO – the El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation.
The past three winters have been La Niña seasons. 2022/23 saw huge snow totals in the US, particularly in California, enabling Mammoth Mountain to keep its slopes open to August, and in Utah, where Alta topped 900 inches (23 metres) of snowfall. Winter 1998/9, when Mt Baker ski area in Washington state posted a snowfall world record with 95 feet (29 metres) of snowfall, was also a La Niña winter.
Is 2023/24 an El Niño winter?
Almost certainly 2023/24 will be a “very strong El Niño winter,” with some of the more colourful claims including that it might be the strongest for 50 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published its latest predictions on September 14 stating a “greater than 95 per cent chance of El Niño through January to March 2024.”
Does El Niño mean more snow during the ski season?
For some regions and resorts, yes, for others (which tend to do better in La Nina winters), no.
The developing El Niño has already influenced the southern hemisphere’s 2023 ski season. Australia’s last open area, Perisher, closed a week early on September 25, after losing the battle against above-average temperatures since July.
By contrast, the South American Andes were among those to benefit from the El Niño season. Chile’s Portillo posted a five-foot (1.6 metre) snowfall earlier this month, and Argentina’s Las Leñas received even more.
However, be warned of the difference between the El Niño hype versus reality. Marine biologist John Bohorquez, who was skiing in Portillo, noted: “While it has certainly been an impressive season with some truly amazing days, the snow received was still less than historic averages.”
Which resorts benefit from El Niño?
Perhaps ironically, given it is a Pacific phenomenon, North America’s Atlantic Coast tends to do well in a strong El Niño season, with, usually, multiple storms pummelling the peaks of Quebec and New England. Good news for resorts like Killington and Stowe.
Debate is fierce over whether major ski states, like Colorado and Utah, will get more or less snowfall than average this year. The impartial NOAA is sitting on the fence saying it could go either way, while local meteorologists are more upbeat. They claim the two states, along with New Mexico and Arizona, could see above-average snowfall, basing their analysis on previous El Niño winters.
Elsewhere, California and the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon and western British Columbia, including Whistler Blackcomb) tend to see milder, wetter weather in El Niño seasons. Then further inland, in Eastern British Columbia and Alberta, drier conditions are the norm.
Nothing is ever certain though, in the 2015/16 El Niño winter, Banff saw below-average snowfall as expected, but nearby Lake Louise was actually above target.
Does El Niño affect ski resorts and weather in Europe? If so, where?
The further we go from the Pacific the less direct the influence of El Niño (or La Niña) and the greater likelihood that other, more local weather factors will play a bigger part in whatever happens.
Professor Adam Scaife, head of long-range forecasting at the Met Office noted that: “The current record for global temperature occurred in 2016 and it’s no coincidence that followed the last big El Niño. If we get a big El Niño at the end of this year then, we’re likely to break the record for global temperature in 2024.”
Professor Scaife also notes that El Niño winters tend to begin milder than average up until the New Year across northern Europe, before turning cooler and drier in January until the end of the season.
What Does El Niño mean for my ski holiday?
When choosing where to go on your ski holiday, you might want to factor into your decision-making that some North American areas are likely to see more snowfall than usual, others less. For Europe, it’s likely the influence of El Niño will be minimal.
Taking in Professor Scaife’s remarks, early-season breaks in Europe, especially at low altitudes, could also see milder weather, but once the festive season is over temperatures could plummet.
You should remember that these are likelihoods, not certainties, that less snow might still be more than enough, and that too much snow can have its issues like closed access roads and high avalanche danger.