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El Ni-o should make it a good ski season

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Lake Tahoe residents and tourists may want to batten down the hatches this winter.

El Ni-o, the tropical weather phenomenon originating in the South Pacific, is gaining strength and is expected to cast its heavier-than-normal precipitation shadow on California this winter through 2003, according to the planet’s top climatologists.

“Be prepared for whatever signal you usually get (during an El Ni-o year), but nothing like the ’97-’98 event,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climatologist John Kermond said.



This event occurred in a year in which flooding enveloped a region from Reno to the Carson Valley, and the Sierra Nevada received heavy snowfall. The Sierra Nevada region from Lake Tahoe south to the Sequoia National Forest, as well as the Southern California mountains, traditionally receives more precipitation than normal.

The magnitude of this year’s event may turn out to be less than other El Ni-o years such as 1982 and 1986, but chances are likely Lake Tahoe will notice a bump in the level of precipitation.



“If El Ni-o is usually a friend to skiers, then it should be a good ski season this year,” said Kermond, who will take readings 900 miles east of Tahiti to monitor the event onboard NOAA’s weather research boat, the Nuku Hiva.

The expeditions, like the one Kermond embarked on off the shores of the Galapagos Islands in South America last fall, collect readings related to atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind and ozone concentrations as well as sea-surface temperatures.

At 81 degrees Fahrenheit, the water temperatures taken in the central Pacific west of the Galapagos are between 2 to 3 degrees warmer than normal — a classic symptom of El Ni-o, NOAA’s Chief Climatologist Vernon Kousky said.

Other symptoms include a current drought in Indonesia and severe monsoons in India.

However, Kousky is convinced this El Ni-o will be weak based on the narrower area of the Pacific in which the mercury has gone up as well as the depth of the warmer temperatures in the area affected.

“The bottom line is, in this one, there’s not as much warm water stored up in the ocean,” he said.

In El Ni-o years, the eastern Pacific usually warms more than its current state.

“We’re going to keep monitoring it,” Kousky said.

El Ni-o conditions are bred in four- to seven-year cycles, less than its counterpart’s predispositions. La Ni-as don’t cover as wide an area of the Pacific as do El Ni-os and take longer to form — an average of 40 days.

Tourism and water officials await strong snow seasons every year in the hopes they will fuel the economic livelihood of Tahoe and bring a much-needed snowpack to a region that has suffered from drought in the last few years.

“We have to, at any given time, meet the demand of the (peak) population,” South Tahoe Public Utility District spokesman Dennis Cocking said.

The water supply concern is accentuated by the time of year peak demand occurs. In the summer, more people come to town, they water the landscape more and use more water inside.

Still, the geography of the Lake Tahoe Basin diminishes the chances of a water shortage like that of Reno.

“Another dry winter is not going to hurt us. Even during the height of the drought in the ’80s, the static level in the wells only went down 3 feet,” Cocking said of the drought period between 1984 and 1987.


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