World Snow News 2009/10 - Issue 1 World Snow News

Snow News update for 11th December 2009

Welcome to the first update from the team for the 2009/2010 ski season.

It's ten years since first started offering online weather to skiers and snowboarders, so we would like to start this editorial by extending our thanks to everyone who has helped us build the site. Subscriptions, resort reviews, photos and feedback have been vital in building the site you see today. Snow-forecast has grown into a huge project that currently hosts over a quarter of a million pages, of which more than 200,000 update 4 times every day. We are also consistently the most accessed website on the internet in the "Winter Sports" field according to Hitwise.

Following two superb ski seasons in Europe and North America, expectations for winter 2009/10 are high. With 2010 close at hand, Vancouver promises to provide the perfect setting for the Winter Olympics, but with half the World's politicians (and half of Europe's limousines) in Copenhagen worrying about climate change, can we take a third successive bumper ski season for granted? Evidence already points to another snowy winter right across Northern Hemisphere resorts, however we expect significant differences in where the best snow conditions will be found compared with the previous seasons. We discuss why after a quick summary of the snow news.

European Snow Summary

After a promising start to autumn, the Alps suffered from a fairly mild spell in late November and early December
Heavy snow in the French Alps a week ago was followed by weekend rain on lower slopes
It has turned colder again with up to 30cm of fresh snow in many Austrian resorts on Wednesday, 40cm at Kaprun
Italian Alps lead European snow depths again. Up to 3m of snow at favored resorts
Cold conditions are forecast to prevail for more than a week with further fresh snowfalls
Cairngorm in Scotland has top to bottom skiing. Other resorts in Scotland have insufficient snow to operate
Cold next week with some fresh snow for all Scottish ski areas
Bansko in Bulgaria has said it plans to open this weekend. Expect fresh snow
Some skiing in Andorra but snow depths are currently no more than 1m: 90cm at Bareges and La Mongie at best
Pouring rain and warm weather ruined some of the great conditions reported only a week ago
Sunny in Andorra this weekend but increasingly unsettled and snowy next week
Just 5km of piste open in the Sierra Nevada of Spain, on a base of 30cm or less
A mixture of light snowfalls and sunny weather for Scandinavia. Becoming colder next week

North American Snow Summary

A major storm dumped heavy snow at resorts from California to the Colorado Rockies early in the week
Squaw Valley reported a two-foot (60cm) accumulation on Monday, Heavenly Mountain Resort reported 34 inches (80cm)
Even hills close to the San Francisco Bay Area saw a rare dusting of snow above around 100m (300 feet)
Up to 4 feet of snow fell in some mountains in Utah and 100 mph winds affected Texas
The storm dumped over 40in (50cm) of snow on Flagstaff in Arizona on Monday - easily a December record
As the storm moved east it dumped at least a foot of snow on 12 states in the American Midwest and New England
Blizzard conditions and record breaking December snowfalls have caused at least 17 deaths
Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa were worst hit with drifts up to 15 feet deep
In some Great Plains states freezing rain caused sheet ice on the roads
The storm is currently affecting the East Coast States and Canada
Several feet of Lake Effect snow are expected downwind of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario
An icy plunge in the wake of this system will cause very low temperatures from the Midwest to the East Coast
In British Columbia conditions a record breaking November snowfall means that a great season is already almost certain
The current El Niño weather pattern should make California the best bet for this ski season

Rest of the World Snow Summary

In Japan, it's already cold and wintry in Hokkaido. Expect very heavy snowfall here this weekend
After a mild and rainy spell, it will turning increasingly cold and snowy across the mountains of Honshu next week
Friday and Saturday of next week promise heavy snow for the mountains of Japan
Generally unsettled next week with rain tending to snow across Greece and Lebanon
A cold and mostly snowy spell of weather ahead for the ski resorts of Turkey and Iran
After temp of 30 degs C on Friday in New Zealand, slopes above 1200m will see snow on Sunday and Monday - summer tourists beware!

El Niño

Several months ago, the onset of El Niño was quickly credited with bringing an early end to the ski season in New Zealand, where most places had a bitterly cold and snowy start to winter but became decidedly spring-like right through August and September. Subsequent frequent snowfalls in October allowed the North Island resort of Turoa to extend skiing into November but lower altitude resorts on the South Island didn't recover enough snow depth to stay open. Places like Mt Lyford and Hanmer which had shown great promise in June went on to close many weeks earlier than they had in 2008. Their accumulated snow depths in 2009 peaked at less than half of the year before. Despite this, NZ resorts generally reported an excellent ski seasons, with visitor numbers well up on 2008. Resort managers generally gave credit to a greater proportion of fine days in 2009 than often windy 2008.
El Niño strengthened during October and early November and remains at moderately strong levels. It continues to generate a predictable early summer weather pattern over
New Zealand with very heavy rain for the Southern Alps and hot sunny days for the east of North Island. Elsewhere, the El Niño weather pattern is also following form. In the Northern Pacific, the associated stormy pattern has pounded the North Shore of Hawaii with huge swells, including the 40 to 50' giant waves of early this week; the biggest there for several years. While that swell crashes onto the Pacific Coast of North America (and eventually parts of South America too - see for details) there are clear implications for the ski season ahead along the Pacific NW and for Vancouver 2010, where skiers tend to associate El Niño with poor ski seasons that are both warmer and drier than usual.

While the El Niño pattern in the
Pacific is certainly in complete contrast with the La Niña pattern of the past two bumper ski seasons, an important, and much less understood factor: solar activity, remains deeply subdued. Tjos is something that is known to have correlated with previous periods of global cooling much more than most physical models suggest it should. In summary, this solar minimum, which is indicated by a relative lack of sunspots, has gone on longer than expected. Nobody really knows if that's a glitch or the start of down-trend that could persist for decades, such as happened during the Maunder minimum (1645 - 1715), a period that coincided with low temperatures in Europe and North America. The advent of a few sunspots in past weeks that have the polarity corresponding to the next solar cycle suggests that a normal level of solar activity may be about to resume.

Following the recent "Climategate" scandal the UK Met-office has uppped the ante somewhat and issued a prediction that due to the overall warming effect of El Niño, 2010 will prove to be the warmest year on record, beating the previous 1998 global record. The argument runs along the lines that we have had 12 years more greenhouse gas since the last time we had an El Niño this strong. Worse news, for snow sports, is that they also predict half the years between 2010 and 2019 will be warmer than 1998.

North America - The week & winter ahead

NOAA predict the current El Niño will persist right through winter, but are unsure if it will strengthen further or begin to weaken. According to their website, For the contiguous United States, potential impacts include above-average precipitation for the southern tier of the country, with below-average precipitation in the Pacific Northwest and the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys. Below-average snowfall and above-average temperatures are most likely across the northern tier of states (excluding New England), while below-average temperatures are favored for the southeastern states
We are not so sure it will turn out to be this simple, not least because the US weather pattern is not really much like this at present. This El Niños is notable for having the main area of anomalously warm ocean shifted well to the west of the Americas and that could make a significant difference with the usual patterns.

All eyes will be on the Pacific NW as we approach the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Of course Whistler and other venues have their bases covered with superb snow-making facilities but is the cause for concern statistically justified? According to this excellent analysis at, the reputation for poor snow is not deserved. Between 1950 and 1994, strong El Niño years are statistically milder than average, they also provide more precipitation, and on upper mountains at least, this tends to fall as snow. And that's pretty much the pattern we see at present with ample snow on the upper slopes of Whistler Mountain and not so much low down. Strong La Niña patterns tend to be both snowier than average and colder than average so that in the California Cascades all the snow records we set in El Niño years whereas the records in the Cascades of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia were set during strong La Niña seasons. Nowhere in this area broke any records during weak or neutral seasons. Perhaps the biggest risk to the Olympics is that one of the occasional mild spells that is more likely in an El Niño season will arrive at an unfortunate time, especially at the less snow-sure venue of Grouse Mountain.

The 97-98 season was the last strong El Niño season. That one was notable for producing a poor ski season in the Pacific NW, with coastal train and high temperatures, especially further inland. Contrast this with last week when we saw temperatures down to -40 across this region and great snow conditions at places like Revelstoke and Fernie for anyone who braved the extreme cold. Sunshine, Lake Louise Ski Area and Mt. Norquay are all boasting some of the best early season snow in 30 years.

Many parts of North America are currently reporting record breaking December snowfalls and low temperatures. A storm system that brought blizzards from California to New England lies over eastern Canada and is forecast to draw down cold air that originated north of Hudson Bay down towards the Gulf of Mexico. Already bitterly cold in many States with frosts extending right down to the Gulf coast and even the prospect of snow falling in the southernmost Appalachians. In New England, mild early season conditions have been a problem but some resorts including Sugarbush, Sugarloaf and Smugglers Notch have been able to operate on a mix of artificial and natural snow.

A less snowy period for the week ahead over most of the continent but nevertheless with further snowfalls for the Pacific region as well as the Rockies with only a brief spell of milder weather for central and southern States before another arctic blast. Heavy snowfall for California and Nevada through this weekend, with excellent snowfalls, even for the resorts closest to LA. This snow spreads across the Rockies on Sunday and Monday before the next system brings very heavy snow to the Pacific NW on Tuesday and Wednesday but be warned that from Vancouver south, freezing levels may push above 2000m for a time making for rain at resort level and heavy snowfalls on upper slopes. Typical El Niño weather, or just typical winter weather?

Europe - The week & winter ahead

For the European Alps, it's hard to believe that as recently as 2006, Alpine slopes were mostly grassy at this time of year. Although this season has not seen a repeat of the spectacular early snowfalls to low elevations in 07 and 08, most resorts are reporting a good covering of snow that survived the recent mild spell - the latest in a mixed start to the season. As we approach the Christmas holiday, very cold weather with some areas of snow look likely to become established across much of Europe; much to the embarrassment of those meeting in Denmark who only packed Hawaiian shirts and shorts.

The most significant change in the European weather pattern for several months is expected to really get going during the next few days. As often happens during such transitions, the weather models are not in close agreement on the details of how things look afterwards. Almost all of autumn was characterized by deep low pressure systems near Iceland, a large anticyclone over the Azores and a strong SW flow over the British Isles bringing mild temperatures and heavy rainfall. Fortunately for the Alps, the wettest and mildest air stayed mostly west of mainland Europe. Despite the UK overall having the wettest November on record, parts of Eastern England were quite dry and with the exception of Cumbria, the very heaviest rainfall was even further west, over Ireland.

After heavy snow last week in Switzerland almost cut off the resort of Engelberg and other resorts reported big falls, Swiss resorts have again been announcing substantial snowfalls of at least 40cm in the first half of this week with a foot of snow falling at Verbier in a single fall but it was pretty heavy right across Valais. Overall, Andermatt has the deepest snow depths in Switzerland with a 1.9m base on upper runs and a respectable 1.3m in the resort.

The next few days will certainly see high pressure building over the northeast Atlantic and a large area of low pressure developing over the Azores: the opposite of the recent dominant pattern of autumn. Cold air is already flowing westward from Eastern Europe and Russia towards the Atlantic. Some areas of mostly light snow are embedded in the airstream but the interesting weather will happen along the southern and western boundaries of this cold continental air mass as Atlantic depressions take a southerly track across Spain and into the Mediterranean and later tracking into the Bay of Biscay. Expect heavy snow to fall across the mountains of southern and central Europe, and with a chance of things turning snowy across central Britain and northern France on about the 18th or 19th, with accompanying strong SE winds. Again, we must stress that the forecast this far out is highly speculative and successive runs of the model give different outcomes.

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Best wishes,

The team

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