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Could This Be the Year?

Deep thoughts
posted: 08/20/2003

I want it to snow and never stop. I want big, black storm clouds-not those wimpy gray ones-to cover the land from here to the horizon and beyond. I want flakes the size of dinner plates, blizzards that last for weeks, and powder so deep you need spelunking gear if you lose a ski. I'm only satisfied by "storms of thecentury"-and I'd be even happier with storms of the millennium. Each time I see a snowflake, I want to ask it, "Are you the one? Are you the first of the storm without end? Or are you gonna puss out like all the others?" It's a bit of an obsession, I admit, but I'm just happier when snow is falling. Especially when it's falling on me.

And so it's December. Snow has fallen in some places and not in others. Most of us are staring at the sky wondering when-and for how long? And because I'm not the selfish sort-at least when it comes to powder-I'm also wondering where. Will it come to Telluride and Taos, poor, beaten-down stepchildren who haven't had a decent season in years, or will it head north, just out of reach, like the fruit dangling over poor Tantalus? Will the plucky, hardscrabble resorts of Southern California play Russian roulette with bankruptcy again, or will they reap some of nature's wealth as snow instead of rain?

Or maybe we'll have what a friend calls a "grand-slam winter," where the snow comes to Telluride and Taos and Southern California, and doesn't stop there but also falls on Mammoth and Baker, Kicking Horse and Jay Peak, Snowshoe and Steamboat. It's happened, you know-most recently in 1996-97 and before that in 1982-83, two seasons that have become legends. The 1982-83 mega-winter was the result of a strong El Niño, which brought huge snowfalls and tremendous variability in distribution. The Sierra Nevada and Southern Cal rocked, and parts of the Pacific Northwest went off, but the Northeast was blanked. The snow was like a wildfire that burns two houses but skips one in between.

The sheer volume of the big hits was enough to set 1982-83 as the benchmark. Kirkwood, after all, got almost 800 inches! That's what we remember-not that Whiteface, New York, had just 48. A big winter like that, even a big winter in one part of the country, creates its own buzz, which surges through the system like a jolt of electricity. And, as time goes on and the memories fade into one big blurry blizzard, the power of the biggest days makes the myth grow larger. "Eighty-two-eighty-three? Oh, yeah, I was there..."

The last big season, 1996-97, was different: Instead of being spectacular in a handful of places, it was solid all across the country, a true four-bagger. North, south, east, west-everyone was gleaming from the booty. And the snow was excellent from early until late. In the month of December, Jackson Hole had measurable snow every day but one. That year was as consistent as consistent gets, the stuff of dreams, and if it isn't as legendary as 1982-83, it's only because we haven't had as much time to burnish it.

So here we stand in the season of 2003-04, dreaming of winters past, wishful, hopeful, and horny. There's no El Niño in sight, so where do we place our hopes? Well, if you're feeling greedy, pray for the jet stream to mach straight overhead and push some honkin' Gulf of Alaska lows to your hill. If you're feeling magnanimous, hope for a consistent westerly flow of air and low-pressure systems along the West Coast, with no bubble of high pressure over the intermountain region to divert storms north or south, and a few solid Nor'easters spiraling into the East, just as in 1996-97.

If, like me, you're feeling magnanimous and greedy, you should cross your fingers and hope for what meteorologists call an omega block. This is a huge ridge of high pressure smack in the middle of the country, with low-pressure troughs on either side. Omega blocks are rare-cold air masses sliding down from Canada tend to prevent them-but when they happen, they almost always bring storms on either side. These moisture-laden spirals just sit there, sucking up water off the coasts and dumping it as snow right where it's wanted most, in the mountains east and west of the heartland. They are, in fact, compulsive snowmaking machines. Alas, omega blocks aren't perfect-they often die out after a few days-but they're as close to perfect as you can get in the fickle world of weather. In the absence of a permanent on button, that's where I'm placing my faith.

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