Las winter was one for the history books. Skiers enjoyed record-setting powder from the Pacific Northwest to the Rockies to New England. Newscasters and headline writers groped for words to describe the mayhem: Snowpocalypse! Stormzilla! Skier visits, not surprisingly, set an all-time record of 60.54 million.
Hints of something on the magnitude of last winter were detected in the summer of 2010, when meteorologists in the federal climate prediction center observed that parts of the pacific ocean were shifting to a la niña phase. La Niña often coincides with increased precipitation across the northern U.S., but it does not guarantee major snowfall. What made last winter special was the collision of la niña with what’s called an arctic oscillation, which pushed cold air into the northern tier of the united states. in tandem, these two patterns were a recipe for an epic winter.
When the snow hit, it came with a vengeance— nowhere more so than the Tahoe region. Squaw Valley’s 810 inches shattered the previous record of 682. “It was go straight and fast or don’t go at all,” says Squaw spokeswoman Amelia Richmond. At Jackson Hole, coverage was so deep that the tram nearly bottomed out. Even New York City got pounded. Two storms dropped 18 inches or more— the first time that has ever happened.
Skiers were flying down slopes on the Fourth of July at more than a dozen resorts. “We were supposed to open our mountain bike park for that weekend but couldn’t due to so much snow,” says Kirkwood’s Cassie Morrow. “No one i have spoken to, including guides who have been here 40 years, can recall as much snow in July,” adds Jackson Hole spokesman Zahan Billimoria.
The question now is, will it happen again? James Madden, a meteorologist with Exactaweather. com, says the winter looks good for skiers. “Subsurface oceanic heat content in the upper parts of the equatorial Pacific continue to weaken, with strengthening subsurface anomalies in the east-central pacific,” he says. Translation: “i fully expect many parts of North america, and the Pacific Northwest in particular, to experience a harsh winter this year with copious amounts of snow.” Moreover, Madden believes the Pacific cold phase, combined with other factors, including low solar activity and changes to atmospheric circulation, could mean a snowy time for North America for a decade or more—even in the nNortheast.
Others are not so sure. “We are seeing hints that we could dive back into La Niña,” says Mike Halpert, a senior meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center. “i would call it a modest shift toward a snowy winter.” However next winter turns out, skiers must still remain attuned to the weather if they want to fully capitalize on it. Steve (he requested that his last name not be used lest his boss discover his powder addiction), founder of Powderchasers.com, recommends keeping an eye on the two-week forecast from the National Weather Service. While the forecast is typically inaccurate beyond seven days, it’s “very accurate in a three-day time frame.”
Steve knows. Last winter, he caught first tram at Snowbird and enjoyed two feet of fresh, then drove all night to Squaw, where he got buried for more two days. He then sped back through the storm to Utah, racking up another two epic days. “My motto is, get in early, hit it hard while it’s fresh and get out before the crowds,” he says. “The key is to be ready to go on a moment’s notice.”