The term “La Niña” can send skiers and snowboarders into a frenzy, with dreams of endless powder in a winter when the snow seems to never stop falling.
Or, in other words, dreams of last winter, which was one for the record books in Central Oregon.
Mount Bachelor received 578 inches of snowfall for the winter of 2016-17, the third-most since record-keeping began in the early 1970s at Mt. Bachelor ski area.
Could snowriders be in store for another winter of their dreams?
Possibly, but it is too soon to tell.
The “La Niña watch” is in effect, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which says the chance of at least a weak La Niña are about 60 percent.
La Niña weather patterns typically bring below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation to the Northwest, often meaning more snow in the mountains.
El Niño — which usually makes for a warmer and drier Northwest winter — and La Niña are season weather patterns driven by sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Accurately forecasting the weather can be extremely difficult, especially without a strong El Niño or La Niña signature.
“The atmosphere over the tropical Pacific was La Niña-like in September, but the required cooling of the ocean surface was interrupted in the second half of the month,” NOAA noted on its website. “However, the deeper waters in the east cooled further, and forecasters say the odds of at least a weak La Niña by late fall or winter are 55 to 65 percent.”
But Kathie Dello, the deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says those odds “aren’t anything to get too worked up about, especially in late October.”
“It’s a wait-and-see, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on lots of snow because there might be a La Niña,” Dello adds.
NOAA’s next update on the La Niña watch is Nov. 9; Mt. Bachelor is tentatively scheduled to open on Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving.
If a La Niña watch is not enough to get skiers and snowboarders excited about the upcoming winter season, perhaps the current blanket of snow in the Cascades is. Bachelor boasted 18 inches of snow earlier this week, according to mtbachelor.com, and snowriders reportedly were flocking to the cinder cone near West Village Lodge this past weekend to hike up and ride down. Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood had 23 inches at its base as of Wednesday, according to www.timberlinelodge.com.
But despite the fairly significant early-season snow, Dello says the La Niña has not started yet.
“It appears the atmosphere is on board but the ocean isn’t,” Dello further explains. “And this is kind of late in the year to be talking about, well, will this La Niña develop? Normally we’d have a better handle on it. I’m not … I’m cautiously, I guess, optimistic, is the right word. The NOAA three-month outlook has us in warmer than normal temperatures, which is always bad news (for skiers).”
Dello says that last winter was actually considered a weak La Niña, even with the significant rain and snow that it brought to the Northwest. But, she adds, the distinctions between weak, moderate and strong La Niñas can be subtle.
She adds that earlier this year there were even hints of a possible El Niño for this coming winter. Currently, she says, the situation is neutral — but leaning toward a La Niña.
“The ocean doesn’t know what it’s doing,” she says with a chuckle. “I think the ocean conditions are slightly cooler than normal, but I don’t think they’ve reached the threshold of La Niña.”
Dello says there is a greater chance of higher-than-normal temperatures over the next three months, but also a greater chance of above-average precipitation over the same time period.
Last winter’s deluge could signal a trend of wetter winters in the future brought on by climate change, according to Dello.
“We are seeing some indication that winters are getting wetter and they will continue to be wetter,” she says. “Even though last winter was cool by our standards, when you put it in the context of the whole record, it wasn’t all that cold. It was pretty remarkable, but within the climate change context it wasn’t like the winters of yesteryear. That would have been a fairly moderate winter early in the 20th century.”
For the coming winter though, a repeat of last season would be just fine for Central Oregon skiers and snowboarders.
The La Niña watch is on.
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,