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El Niño and 'The Blob' conspire for a potential warm winter

Precipitation levels harder to predict, experts say


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As the summer gives way to the fall, Whistler's skiers and snowboarders are holding out hope for a season better than last — but early predictions are showing signs of another warm winter.

"All of our climate models, be them from Environment Canada, the National Weather Service, the British Weather Service, all are consistent in forecasting a warmer-than-normal winter, and that's just given the very present and strengthening El Niño," said Matt MacDonald, meteorologist with Environment Canada.

But there's another weather pattern at play.

The Pacific Decadel Oscillation (PDO) — a recurring pattern of climate variability referred to in the media lately as "The Blob" — could conspire to make for an even warmer season.

"El Niño records go back 65 years and PDO records go back 115 years, so we've never seen, in that period of time, both indices being as strong as they are," MacDonald said.

"I'd be pretty confident in saying that it will be warmer than normal. Precipitation over the long range is the hardest thing to forecast."

Even during a dry winter, southwest portions of B.C. can expect some multi-day Pineapple Express soakings, said Simon Donner, associate professor of climatology at the University of British Columbia.

"The problem is that it's going to be a warm winter, and so when we get those Pineapple Expresses, the snowline is going to be really high," Donner said.

"So you're looking at rain pretty much all the way close to the peak I would imagine."

An El Niño year doesn't necessarily mean less snow, said Whistler Blackcomb (WB) mountain planner Arthur De Jong.

"The last time we had an El Niño, which was '09/'10, so this was an Olympic year, we had 1,340 centimetres — above our average," De Jong said.

"And if I have a look down the chart on whether it was a strong or weak El Niño, it really doesn't show less snow other than at the lowest elevations. It can produce more snow."

There are no certainties when predicting long-range, dynamic weather patterns, De Jong said, but WB's high alpine terrain and expansive snowmaking capabilities mean there will be skiing in Whistler no matter what happens.

"Last year was a tough year, no question. Yet we were open until June, and we opened on our opening day," De Jong said. "And that's what we're going to do this year."

Half of WB's terrain is above treeline, De Jong said, "and if you've followed us over the last 10, 15 years, we continue to add more lift capacity, more skiing capacity up high," he said.

"We've always been working on resilience with limited snowpacks."

Not all ski areas have the benefits of high alpine terrain — some lower-elevation operations in the province closed early or didn't open at all last winter.

"We could have another challenging year from a weather perspective, but we could also have a good year," said David Lynn, president and CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association.

There's no silver bullet remedy for challenging weather conditions, but ski areas have been working to mitigate the impact by diversifying into summer and enhancing grooming and snowmaking capabilities, Lynn said.

Another challenging winter could also be offset by other factors, he added.

"Is weather a hugely important variable for us? Yes, of course it is," Lynn said.

"But some of these other considerations, such as the level of the Canadian dollar and our marketing efforts and the capital investments that have happened at the different ski areas, all of these other things also come into play."

Coming out of a summer rife with wildfires, another warm and dry winter would put added strain on ecosystems, Donner said.

"Having a warm and dry winter primes what the spring is going to be like," he said.

"So even if you get a lot of rainfall in the spring and early summer, you're starting off with such dry soils and such low snowmelt that it's setting up the possibility for another strong fire season."

Things like the area's agriculture and water supply — already strained this summer in Whistler — could be hit especially hard.

"It's tough all around," Donner said. "Really, everything is affected."

When talking about El Niño, it's important to keep things in perspective, MacDonald said.

"El Niño and climate indices don't tell you anything about what your day-to-day weather is going to be like," he said.

"We're going to get snowstorms, we're going to get arctic outbreaks, but on the whole, when we look back on the winter that was come next April, it will have been two to three degrees warmer than normal."