The short-term forecast does not look promising for a Thanksgiving weekend opener at Mt. Bachelor ski area. The long-term forecast does not look much better in general for skiers and snowboarders in the Northwest this winter.
An El Niño — a weather pattern that typically makes for a warmer and drier Northwest winter — is forecast for this winter, and it has eager local snowriders bummed.
Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says that sea surface temperatures and winds in the equatorial Pacific Ocean are indicating mild El Niño conditions. But, she adds, that does not necessarily point to a poor winter for snowfall.
“There are a few ways to look at it,” Dello says. She notes that the winter of 1976-77 was “a mild El Niño, and that was a big drought year in the Western U.S. Two years ago, the winter of 2016-17, was an El Niño event, and we had a huge snowpack. So when you slice up all the El Niños — mild, moderate, strong — there aren’t really that many to go off of to get a strong statistical sample.”
For now, forecasters say, the El Niño seems firmly in place. The National Weather Service website shows sunny skies through Monday in the forecast for Mount Bachelor. The tentative date for the ski area to open is Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving, but that is looking unlikely. Bachelor officials say a base of 18 to 24 inches of snow is required for opening. On Wednesday only 1 inch of snow was reported on the mountain.
“It doesn’t look like there is a whole lot coming between now and then (Thanksgiving),” says Drew Jackson, marketing and communications director for Mt. Bachelor. “I’m not ready to say that it won’t happen because forecasts can change. We’re just going to be standing ready and if we get that big storm early to middle of next week we’ll work fast and we’ll get something going for Thanksgiving weekend. But we definitely need to see some different signs in the weather models.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 22, the earliest possible date for the holiday. That shortens the window for a possible pre-holiday snowstorm.
In addition to the El Niño forecast, Dello says, the North Pacific is warmer than usual and a stubborn ridge of high pressure — which Dello refers to as “the blob” — has parked itself over Oregon and California similar to the winter of 2014-15, the third-lowest snowfall winter on record at Bachelor.
Dello says the El Niño prediction is mostly for the months of January, February and March, while late November and December conditions are much more difficult to predict.
“But we’re also well into November at this point and we’re below normal for snow already,” Dello says. “This is kind of a fickle time of year, but we need to start getting some snow soon.”
Last year, Bachelor opened with a base of 33 inches on Nov. 18, its earliest opening date since 2006. The resort was forced to close the following week after rainstorms washed away most of the snow. The mountain did reopen, but it did not receive significant snowfall until late February and early March, when 42 inches fell in seven days, doubling the snowpack to 98 inches.
Dello says the main issue last winter as well as in the 2014-15 winter was above-average temperatures — also the primary concern for the winter ahead.
“It has been warm and the outlook is pointing toward warm,” Dello says. “In terms of building a snowpack, temperatures are the most worrisome thing in this El Niño scenario because last year we had a decent amount of precipitation in the mountains, it was just too warm to fall as snow. So we ended up in a pretty bad situation, comparable to 2015.”
When the temperature has dropped below freezing this month, Bachelor has been making snow with its fleet of snow guns along the Thunderbird Run and in the West Village Lodge area, according to Jackson. The manufactured snow is intended merely as a supplement to what nature provides.
“That allows us to shore up some weak spots and perhaps build some big piles that a machine could spread to nearby thin spots,” Jackson says.
While an El Niño pattern typically makes for a warmer and drier winter in the Northwest, it brings the opposite effect in the Southwest and parts of California, Dello notes. The transition zone, she says, has historically been the central and southern parts of Oregon. That means Bachelor is sometimes not as affected by a lack of snow as areas farther north during an El Niño winter.
“We’ve noticed that it tends to tilt the probability scale more toward warm, but it doesn’t guarantee anything,” Jackson says of El Niño. “Tahoe (in Northern California) and southern areas get a lot more snow, and depending on the storm track, if we’re on the northern edge of that we’re just fine. But farther north in Washington they’re drier. It’s really 50-50 for us as to which way the precipitation scale tips.”
Jackson adds that Bachelor’s relatively high elevation — 6,300 feet at West Village Lodge — ensures it will receive at least some snow every winter. Even during the sparse snow winter of 2014-15 the resort offered skiing through May 10. Other lower-elevation resorts in Oregon such as Hoodoo (4,668 feet at the base) and Willamette Pass (5,120 feet) are more negatively affected by an El Niño. Last winter, Willamette Pass never opened due to lack of snow.
“We’re loading the deck with more of these low-snowpack years, and where we’re really seeing those effects is that lower-elevation band,” Dello says. “Bachelor’s base is higher than that level. What we are seeing is these drought years are driven not by lack of precipitation, but by warm temperatures.”
As for the winter ahead?
“If you like to go to a sno-park and nordic ski or snowshoe, there might not be snow in some of those areas,” Dello says. “A lot of people are bummed out. October was beautiful, but it made me feel really guilty to enjoy it. We need rain. We need snow.”