Not El Niño yet: Tahoe Basin sees significant snow from first winter storm (updated)
November 5, 2015
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Get out your skis and snowboards. Take to the hills and shout from the mountain tops, "El Niño is here. El Niño is here!"
With portions of the Tahoe region reporting 465 percent above the average snowpack following the first winter storm of the season, Monday, Nov. 2, it's clear the Sierra Nevada is in for a winter for the ages. Right?
Not so fast, eager skiers. While Monday's storm dropped substantial snow across the Tahoe Basin — giving reasons for optimism — area forecasters say to temper expectations. In fact, it's still far too early to say what correlation the strong El Niño may have on winter in the West.
"What happened today wasn't El Niño," OpenSnow.com Tahoe Basin forecaster Bryan Allegretto said Monday. "It was a classic, perfect, early winter storm, but it was not El Niño."
Allegretto and Reno-based National Weather Service meteorologist Zach Tolby both said that we won't really see what the strong warm-water mass in the Pacific will do for ski season until January.
And while the current El Niño pattern has been compared to similar Pacific Ocean water temperatures in 1982 and 1997 — both of which yielded strong winter snow totals — there are also a number of other factors contributing to what winter will bring.
"Everything is completely different," Allegretto said, when comparing this year to those previous strong El Niños. "There are so many things going on that are not the same as '97 and '82."
Still, according to Tolby, Monday's weather system showed a break in the patterns from the last four years of low snowfall in the Tahoe Basin.
"In general, the atmosphere is behaving much different than the last couple of years," he said, referring specifically to a strong high pressure system off the Pacific Coast of the U.S. that blocked a number of weather systems in previous winters. But while news was positive, both forecasters remain only cautiously optimistic.
"It doesn't necessarily say anything about the future," Tolby said of Monday's storm. "I think it's important to understand that every El Niño is different. The correlation with receiving above average precipitation is highest in January through March."
Both said the Lake Tahoe area continues to have a chance for an above average or at least average winter.
"An average year would be great compared to the last few years," Allegretto said, adding that snowpack was at or below 75 percent of average for the last three winters.
"Right now we still don't know. This is new territory we're breaking into with the new pattern," he said.
OpenSnow.com indicated reasons for optimism, however, in an extended season forecast. Their prediction for the Tahoe Basin is calling for between 99 and 134 percent of average snowfall for the winter.
Allegretto recommends taking those predictions with a grain of salt, and he is holding on to the lower end of the prediction.
"All the forecasts have Tahoe right on the edge," he said. "I don't feel confident saying anything but an average year."
But he modified his statement when comparing to years past.
"Average is huge," he said, and it would be a welcome change.
"The odds are slightly tilted toward above an above average winter," he said. "Even if we got back to an average winter, that would be a pleasant surprise."
He further explained that the strong El Niño does "significantly reduce the chances of a dry or below average winter."
RESORTS TO REAP THE BENEFIT
Beyond the marketing potential of this early winter storm, California resorts have other reasons to be optimistic for the start of the ski and snowboard season. Cooler temperatures are expected to continue through early November giving Tahoe area resorts ideal conditions for snow making, according to Allegretto.
"It looks like the next couple weeks could stay cold," he said, adding: "Cold storms are showing up on the model for November."
The Tahoe region could potentially see another storm as early as next week, Allegretto said.
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