It's that time of year again. The time that, for reasons wholly inconceivable, you and I become de facto mountain meteorologists. Soothsayers of snow, if you will. It's the time when all our Vancouver friends who are considering a season's pass purchase, as well as those from elsewhere looking to book ski trips not only to Whistler, but to every corner of the White Planet, see fit to ask the same question: "What do you think the winter's going to be like?"
We have no clue, of course.
More than other familiar snowy environments, there isn't an inherent, inertial or instinctive idea about Coastal winters that derives from having experienced a bunch of them. They are, by nature, unpredictable, and with the addition of any number of global variables, even more unpredictable. And yet by dint of simply living here we are tasked with an analysis of such complexity that no tool mankind has created to do the job seems able to yield a satisfactory answer for some — no matter the level of sophistication of instruments, the degree of predictability they achieve, or whether answers obtained have veracity or not. That's because when it comes to weather, humans have elevated the need to hear what they want to hear to such heights that they're willing to dismiss even the most accurate prophecies of a global scientific establishment in favour of casting about for folksy clues — maybe the wooly bear caterpillar's bands look thin this year; perhaps the squirrels have bushier tails; or fewer birds seem in a hurry to fly south. For those without critters at their disposal, asking friends is a good proxy: surely those who live, work, or travel in the mountains operate a fleet of weather balloons and mainframe computers in their spare time? So we get asked. And more often than not stare back blankly... and refer them to the squirrels.
Though I haven't chosen this annual ephemeral vocation, I've tried to make the best of it. Why? Because I, like many, hate offering only some version of "I don't know" — even when I honestly don't. While such human predilections handily explain the squirrel-tail references of yore, these days we have no excuse: aided by the glut of scientific information at our fingertips (as well as ad hoc misinformation emanating from, say, the conservative camp), it's easy to suss your way to knowing something verifiable about virtually anything. Thus armed, the dreaded "I don't know" is replaced by potential circumventions like "I heard from/on (insert media outlet here)" or "I read on (such-and-such) website."
So who's saying what? I'll save you the trouble. The sage and trusted Farmers' Almanac (which, BTW, employs climate models and not caterpillars), holds that winter 2015 – 2016 is looking to be a repeat of last year, with unseasonable cold over the Atlantic Seaboard, eastern portions of the Great Lakes, and parts of the Midwest, and milder than normal temps expected over the Rockies, Colorado Plateau, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest. "It's like Winter Déjà vu," states head Almanac editor Peter Geiger, adding "last year our bitterly cold, shivery forecasts came true in many states... that experienced one of their top-10 coldest Februarys on record. This year many of these same states may want to get a jump start now and stock up on lots of winter survival gear: sweaters, long johns, and plenty of firewood." The Almanac is also calling for above-normal precipitation over much of the Pacific Northwest, labelling the area "Wet and Mild" on their continental map.
The winter weather outlook from the likely better funded and staffed U.S. National Weather Service (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is similar, but more in line with what has been historically seen during winters with a strong El Niño event. In fact, many at the Weather Service believe winter 2015 – 2016 will see the strongest El Niño in 50 years. With the usual split jet-stream funnelling storm tracks far north and deep south, the Weather Service forecast bodes well for skiers and snowboarders in California, Arizona, Southern Colorado and New Mexico with predictions of above average precip and below-average temps, while not looking good for the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, where below-average precip and temps well above average are forecast: as of September, the Weather Service and U.S.-based Accuweather are predicting a 30 to 40 per cent drier-than-normal season for the PNW with a > 60 per cent chance of higher than normal temperatures.
Talk of a strong El Niño trend has been the thrust of winter conversation in California, and now all citizens can do is hope that, as has happened in the past, the meteorological phenomena ends a four-year streak of low snowfall that will at least partially relieve the Golden State's current drought. As Accuweather's senior meteorologist Brett Anderson notes, however, with every El Niño comes a disclaimer, and this one is a doozy: the PDO or Pacific Decadal Oscillation results in isolated warm waters off the west coast, which cause high pressure ridges, preventing inland storms from any significant development. The PDO has the potential to negate El Niño effects, subsequently making snowy forecasts less likely... or the other way around.
Environment Canada specializes in long-term forecasts (which should be obvious by some of their short-term forecasts) and has a whole schwack of temperature and precipitation forecasts of both the probabilistic (prediction models based on current and evolving data) and deterministic (prediction models based on history) type. The long-term seasonal prediction system's objective is to forecast the evolution of global climate conditions. In this case, it pretty much follows on what the NOAA is saying — with the same provisos.
But there's another potential wrench in the works: because of the previously unpredicted speed of some climate change parameters, many models are being thrown into disarray. There's even more "maybe" when an entire global system could tip one way or another at any moment, and we've seen a lot of that in the past few years. One University of Victoria professor went even further, this week predicting a "monster El Niño" with effects ranging from flooding to severe erosion along the coast. On the other hand, we who live on the coast also know about the difference 300 metres in freezing level can make in a heavy precipitation year — it could be very good or very bad. So what do I think this winter's going to be like? Dear friends looking for advice, I still don't have a clue. Perhaps even less than usual. Because when you add up all the certainty around the uncertainty, all bets are off.
At least that's what the squirrels are saying.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.