Strong El Nino Outlook Could Mean Warmer Winter

Despite seasonal forecast, meteorologists say snow enthusiasts shouldn’t lose hope

By Tristan Scott
Frost crystals form on stems of high grass in Kalispell on Oct. 28, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With fewer than 40 days left before Whitefish Mountain Resort’s scheduled Dec. 7 opening on Big Mountain, Ullr and the snow deities have been busy delivering an early dose of winter weather across the Flathead Valley. But with weather and climate experts predicting a strong El Nino climate pattern to settle in for the 2023-2024 season, meaning higher-than-average temperatures are expected for the northern Rockies, it’s time for winter-sports enthusiasts to start their invocations to the snow gods in earnest.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its U.S. Winter Outlook on Oct. 19, El Nino is in place heading into winter for the first time in four years, driving the outlook for warmer-than-average temperatures for the northern tier of the continental United States.

From December through February, NOAA predicts wetter-than-average conditions for northern Alaska, portions of the West, the southern Plains, Southeast, Gulf Coast and lower mid-Atlantic and drier-than-average conditions across the northern tier of the U.S., especially in the northern Rockies and High Plains and near the Great Lakes.

Robert Nester, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in Missoula and the climate program manager at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said “with high confidence” that El Nino will exert its influence on weather and the climate in the approaching winter. This means above-average temperatures across much of the West and northern half of the contiguous United States, and below average temperatures in the southeast and southern plains.

Precipitation anomalies could be as much as 75% to 90% below normal, Nester said, while below-normal temperature departures are also expected, “especially across northwest Montana” where the thermometer is expected to hover 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

“During moderate to strong El Nino events, the best confidence we have for a seasonal outlook is that snow water equivalent is generally 75% to 90% of normal,” Nester said, describing a measurement of how much water is available in the snow.

But don’t go burning this year’s new set of powder boards just yet, particularly as Nester is the first to admit that seasonal predictions don’t always go as planned.

“One theme of this report is that not all El Ninos are the same,” Nester said. “Some years we have had wetter than normal conditions, including the winter of 1994-95 and, more recently, 2015-16.”

That year, Big Mountain recorded 311 inches of snow, which is above its 10-year average of 300 inches, and marked a significant increase over the 221 inches that fell in 2014-15. Storms that winter delivered snow 70 out of 128 days, and more than 320,000 skiers turned out for the best showing in the resort’s history.

As another example, Nester noted that last winter showed signs of a La Nina season, meaning a Pacific Ocean climate pattern favoring lower temperatures and higher precipitation, but the opposite was true in northwest Montana, where Whitefish Mountain Resort registered just 210 inches of snowfall, or about 65% of its average.

The resulting drought persisted throughout spring and summer, however, and Nester said those “severe to extreme” conditions are expected to continue through winter and push south.

According to the Oct. 17 U.S. Drought Monitor, a third of the country, including Puerto Rico, remains in drought.

“During late October, heavy precipitation is likely to result in drought improvement for the central U.S. El Nino with its enhanced precipitation is expected to provide drought relief to the southern U.S. during the next few months,” said Brad Pugh, operational drought lead with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Big Mountain Jesus covered in snow on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 22, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

An El Nino pattern tends to mean drier-than-average conditions in the Northwest and northern Rockies, however.

Still, Nester said El Nino predictions are about climate, and don’t necessarily predict the day-to-day and week-to-week weather, so snow enthusiasts shouldn’t lose hope just yet.

“There is high confidence for seasonal snowfall below normal and fewer snow events, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have snow,” Nester said. “We’re still going to have snow events and colder events but not quite as frequent.”

In other corners of the winter-weather world, forecasters are calling for colder-than-average temperatures, including the 207th edition of the Farmers’ Almanac, which cautions that “the ‘brrr’ is back” and predicts “more snow and low temperatures nationwide.”

“After a weird and warm winter season last year, this winter should make cold weather fans rejoice – especially those in the Great Lakes, Midwest, and northern New England areas,” wrote editor Pete Geiger in a statement accompanying the extended forecast.

Blizzards will usher in an early winter in December, according to the Almanac’s forecast, with northern New England, the North Central states, and northern and central areas of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas all likely encountering blizzard conditions.

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