An assumption could be made that Coloradans are more attuned to their weather surroundings than most other people in the country. That’s why the words “El Nino” inspire such a sense of hope and anticipation when uttered to the wishful ears of ski-hungry Colorado residents.
Instead of visions of sugarplums, it’s visions of snow days dancing around in our Coloradan heads in the latter part of December. There are also water quantity issues that have many who live in this state looking for hope wherever they can. But does El Nino really have a significant effect on Colorado’s weather? The answer is a bit more complicated than you may think.
First, what makes this an El Nino year? According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), El Nino is the warm phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation. It is a complex weather pattern resulting from above average sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. This occurs when normal trade winds weaken — or even reverse — and warm water that is usually found in the western Pacific flows instead towards the east. This change affects the location of the jet stream, altering rainfall and temperature patterns in the United States. El Nino weather patterns tend to last nine to 12 months and typically occur every two to seven years.
Because of where Colorado is situated in relation to the El Nino jet stream, it does not typically change our temperature or precipitation outlook for the state as a whole. It does, however, change where and when we see heavier amounts of precipitation. Generally and historically, El Nino years bring less precipitation to the northern Rockies, more to the southern Rockies, and big storms to the Front Range.
Currently, Colorado as a whole has seen a good year for precipitation, but it may not be completely attributed to El Nino. So where does that leave us here in Eagle County? And, more importantly, is there still hope for a massive snow day this winter as a result of El Nino?
When NOAA predicted this year’s El Nino weather pattern as being one of the top three strongest patterns since 1950, when El Nino record keeping began, the buzz of bountiful snow filled the air. We are now in January and just past the peak of the El Nino season. Though snowpack across the state is right around 100 percent of snow water equivalent — the best it’s been in four years at this point in the season — it’s been a rather mild winter in the valley thus far.
According to Joe Ramey, of the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, and Klaus Wolter, a climatologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, the mild winter is typical for an El Nino year in Eagle County and other areas in northwestern Colorado. “We can expect nothing too extreme through the winter,” said Ramey. As of now, Eagle County has an equal opportunity for above or below average temperatures and is looking pretty mild on the precipitation front — which basically means our weather is just as unpredictable as ever.
But, there is still hope for that “Godzilla of a storm” in the spring when our El Nino compadre is expected to bring above-average precipitation to Colorado’s Western Slope.
According to Wolter, “March is historically Colorado’s snowiest month, but past El Nino data indicates that we’re in for a snowier month than usual.”
This is great news for the skiers and boarders out there, but it’s also great news for our rivers and streams, which support our community and economy. With the likelihood of a late boost in snowpack, we should also see a boost in streamflow throughout the spring and summer. Though we still have a long way to go to make up for Colorado’s extended drought, this year’s El Nino influence should help. All in all, we’re in a good place this winter season and there’s a promising outlook for an even better spring. So keep those powder skis tuned, my friends!
Brooke Ranney is the projects and events coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on January 28, 2016.