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Strong El Niño Does Not Necessarily Doom Northwest Ski Season

Sea surface temperature anomalies in degrees Celsius show the El Niño as the dark red band across the equatorial Pacific."

Ahistorically strong El Niño is taking shapeaccording to climatologists watching the Pacific Ocean. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said during a briefing Thursday that the current El Niño has the potential to develop into one of the most potent on record by late fall or early winter.

The cyclical climate phenomenon features unusual warming of the sea surface in the equatorial Pacific, which triggers a cascade of changes in weather worldwide. It typically leads to relatively warm and dry winters around the Northwest. But at least one Northwest ski area refuses to succumb to gloom and doom.

Predictions of a strong El Niño led Mt. Hood Meadows ski area marketing director Dave Tragethon to analyze snowfall in previous cycles.

"The strong El Niños tend to produce near normal if not above normal snowpack for us,” he said. “The last strong El Niño was 1997-98. We had 385 inches of snowfall, which is just below our seasonal average."

Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond reviewed Tragethon's analysis at our request and said it has some merit. But Bond's take on the current climate models is that "the deck is stacked" for more warm and dry ahead for the Northwest.

Bond's office independently analyzed winter (November to March) temperature and precipitation anomalies in the Pacific Northwest during the ten El Niño episodes since 1950 that he judged most comparable to the current one. The quick study was published Thursday in Washington state's weekly drought monitoring report.

Bond's analysis reveals that Northwest winters tend to be warm and dry under strong El Niño conditions, with notable exceptions such as the snowy winter of 1982-83. For this coming season, Bond wrote that he had greater confidence in predicting a relatively warm winter. The signal indicating less precipitation than normal is weaker.

Tragethon said the effect of El Niño concerns on season ticket sales has been "negligible" to date. But he said the northern Oregon ski area wanted to reassure skiers that in a strong El Niño year, "We don't necessarily have to fear about not getting the snowpack at Mt. Hood Meadows."

The ski area is guaranteeing its season passholders that it will be open for at least 100 days with at least one high speed quad lift operating. If the season comes up short, the passholders will get a pro-rated credit.

Oregon Climate Service Director Philip Mote of Oregon State University explained El Niño typically affects our Northwest winter more than summer.

"What El Niño primarily does is shove around the jet stream and the storm track," he said. "Those are so far north in the summer and so badly connected to the tropics that it really doesn't make that much difference for summer climate in the U.S. The one exception to that is that El Niño events tend to suppress Atlantic hurricanes."

As for the dry summer the Northwest is presently experiencing, ”The current drought in the Pacific Coast states cannot be blamed on the current El Niño," Bond wrote in a follow up email.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.