Winter Ski Season Snow Forecast 2023-2024

Sun Peaks Ski Resort

Adiós La Nina. Hola El Niño

For three years, La Nina has dominated global weather, the girl child kicking up some petulant snow storms, especially over the western side of North America, last winter, but leaving Europe underwhelmed. Now it's all change with the boy child, El Niño, taking over the meteorological nursery and shaking the snow globe.

Image: Snowtime in Sun Peaks

You won't have been rushing to book a ski holiday for the start of the season if you've read the early forecasts for this winter. But, you might now as snow reports blow in from across the Northern Hemisphere with some Canadian and mid-west US resorts opening at the beginning of November while the recent storms in Europe have dumped enough decent snow at altitude to justify getting the fat skis out.

But is early snow a precursor for a powder-filled winter season? Can you confidently book your ski holiday for next January? Or will there be a snow drought?

Since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a 95 percent chance of a moderate to strong El Niño continuing through to March, 2024, the winter snow forecasters have been in overdrive. And most were predicting a warm start to the ski season.

The last time we saw a strong El Niño was back in the 2015-2016 ski season. Remember that winter? Thought not. It wasn't the most memorable. Except maybe for some epic winds in the Alps.

Combined with rising temperatures from global warming, the influence of El Niño could mean that 2024 is the hottest year on record - and this is after some already record breaking years, temperature-wise. There is the very real fear that we could push past the red-alert 1.5C warming threshold, according to Euronews.

The extreme warmth in the global oceans means this El Niño is operating in a different world than earlier El Niño events, according to NOAA, stating,  for example, that the Atlantic hurricane season is often on the quieter side overall during El Niño, but this year has already seen an active season, with 18 named storms, as the very warm North Atlantic Ocean has provided lots of fuel.

SNOW IN EUROPE

“El Niño years have a tendency to have a mild wet and westerly start to winter (Nov-Dec) and a colder, drier end to winter (Jan-Mar) across most of northern Europe,” says Professor Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the UK’s Met Office.

Mild and wet. Cold and dry. Neither combo is going to trigger an avalanche of ski holiday bookings.

But there's a heads up from the ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) who are predicting that most of Europe will have less snowfall than normal, EXCEPT for the Alpine region and parts of Scandinavia. So there is hope for skiing in the Alps and Sweden.

December snowfall shows improvement in central Europe. The UKMO long-range forecasting system indicates a change for January across much of the continent with increased snowfall potential forecast over most of mainland Europe.

Check out the weather and ski sites such as Snow Forecast and WePowder for up to 10 days in advance snow alerts during the winter. For not only predicted snowfall but also the warmest and coldest ski resorts across Europe go to SNO.

SNOW ACROSS THE POND

Historically, a strong low pressure system in the North Pacific is the most typical effect of a warm ENSO phase (El Niño), according to Severe Weather. This usually weakens the polar jet stream but strengthens the subtropical jet stream over the southern United States.

The high pressure area over Canada means a low pressure train over the southern half of the United States. This extends the Pacific jet stream, bringing more moisture and precipitation to the southern United States while the northern parts remain drier.

During an average El Niño winter, temperatures are colder in the southern half of the United States and parts of the eastern United States. The northern United States and Canada are warmer than normal. There is reduced snowfall predicted in the early-to-mid winter over the western United States and Canada, around the Great Lakes, and into the north-eastern United States but a cooler winter with more precipitation expected over the southern United States.

A good reason, if booking early, to aim for the southern resorts for your ski holiday. Or go east, according to Powder, as nor'easters, storms that can dump multiple feet of across the north-east, are in the winter 2023-2024 El Niño forecast, so good news for east coast skiers.

Meanwhile, the Farmers Almanac is full of more detailed predictions including: 'The second week of January will be stormy, snowy, and wet for both the Pacific Coast and the eastern states. Lots of cold temperatures and some storms will keep folks in the south central states busy during the middle of January. Heavy mountain snows will cover the western US including the mountains on the Pacific Coast during the first week of February. An east coast storm affecting the north-east and New England states will bring snowfall, cold rain and then frigid temperatures, during the second week of February.

The Almanac oracle also forecasts that March will be cold, a good reason for skiers to hang on to the end of the season when 'the brrr is back and won’t let go too easily'. The later season extended forecast calls for wild swings in the thermometer, especially in the east.

March could 'go out like a lion', with stormy conditions nationwide.

SNOW IN JAPAN

How about the snow factory in Japan? The northern resorts are traditionally less affected by El Niño. During the last strong El Niño, Niseko scored average snowfall, while Furano was snowed under. Literally.

The Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) predicts potentially below average snowfall. But this is the Land of the Falling Pow, so even below average still means the factory will be churning out the white stuff on most days.

EL NINO FACTS AND SNOW FIGURES

As we've said before in our snow forecasts, the effect of El Niño is far less predictable for European weather, with no guarantees of more or less snowfall. In fact, we've compared historical snowfalls with La Niña and El Nino activity before and found that amounts of snow recorded bears little or no relationship (see graphs below).

These graphs have been compiled from 1st December to 30th April since 1960 charting days with snow cover greater than 50cms in the French Southern Alps and greater than one metre in the Northern Alps recorded at a height of 1800m. Notably there is more of a downward trend in the Northern Alps since the end of the 80s.

snow forecast
 
snow forecast
 

And here is a table showing the years that El Niño and La Niña were active, whether weak, moderate, strong or very strong since 1952:

snow forecast
 

A scan of the figures comparing high snowfall with El Niño and La Niña activity reveals that very few years coincide. During the seven best years in the Northern Alps with over 150 days of more than one metre, 1963 had a mild El Niño, 1975 a strong La Niña, 1977 a weak El Niño and in 1982 there was a very strong El Nino. For the three best snow years in the Southern Alps with more than 150 days of over 50cms, only 1977 was affected by a weak El Niño.

And that really highlights the fact that epic snow in the French Alps, whether Northern or Southern Alps, does not have any regular identifiable correlation to La Niña or El Niño activity - whether weak, moderate or strong - except on an extremely random basis.

PS: PREDICTED SNOW AND THE FUTURE

For its observations and analyses on mid-mountains, Météo France relies on readings from the reference station located at the Col de Porte, near Grenoble (Isère), in the Chartreuse massif, at 1,325m above sea level. Here experts have been taking measurements since 1961. In particular, they measure the duration of annual snowfall on the ground and at a height of one metre.

In this mid-mountain area, the observation is clear, according to France Info. The data in fact show a drop in the duration of snow cover of five days per decade for the presence of snow on the ground, and of more than 10 days for snow depths greater than one metre.

On its site dedicated to the study of climate change, Météo France specifies that this “diagnosis of reduction can be generalised to all mid-mountain areas in France” . Béatrice Vincendon specifies that "this drop is linked to the rise in temperatures, which modifies the phase of precipitation which falls more in the form of rain than in the form of snow" .

The effects of global warming are, therefore, visible at this altitude, where the rain-snow limit is gradually rising.

So it's not just the one-off warm winter we have to worry about but the fact that snow levels are generally declining according to data analysed in France.

This is all the more reason to aim high. This ski season, particularly, with warm temperatures predicted and higher freezing levels, if you're booking a ski holiday in advance, then the resorts at higher altitudes are more likely to have snow.

IS THAT ALL FOLKS?

According to weather.gov: "The chaotic nature of the atmosphere along with the incomplete understanding of atmospheric processes is what makes forecasting difficult".

As we all know weather forecasting is far from being an exact science and, maybe, we should look to mountain folklore for snow predictions, as in measuring how tall the purple gentian flowers grow, the number of red berries and the height of ant hills. Which, by the way, have been decidedly average this autumn in the Alps.

Would sacrificing all your old ski kit to the Snow God maybe work to make it nuke this winter? Or would sod's law prevail for another snow drought if you just shelled out nearly $2000 for DPS Carbon Kaizen 112s?

A mountain guide we know is biblical in his prophesy for seven 'lean' winters to follow an epic one. That'll be 2025, for anyone in the Alps who remembers the Feast From The East in 2018.