The Snow Gauge

Running the rule over the ski & snowboard industry since 1995

North America season outlook: why forecasters could be having a lend

Posted by on Sep 18, 2016 in Canada, United States | 0 comments

Weather guessing

If you’re in North America or going there for the 2016/17 season, it’d be pretty normal right about now to be asking the question: which states are going to get the best snow?

As someone who travels from the southern hemisphere most years the question burns a little more for me right now than say someone from San Francisco, Salt Lake City or Squamish.

So, much like I did around this time last year I spoke to Joel Gratz – founding meteorologist and CEO of Open Snow, the premier powder forecasting site used by 1.5 million skiers and boarders in the US.

His answer threw me completely.

Nothing to see here …

“You’re not going to want to hear this – but I have no idea,” Gratz tells me with a half chuckle.

This wasn’t exactly music to my ears but Gratz got a feeling that others had been making quite liberal interpretations based on very little discernible information.

And then he took me through the logic, and why you should at this point in time be suspicious of any kind of bullish (or indeed other) forecasts for the North American season.

Joel Gratz

Joel Gratz – guess he manages to find powder from time to time …

“For seasonal forecasts three to six months out the only thing that most forecasters have to go on is ocean temperatures around the globe and correlating them with past winters,” he said.

“You look to water blobs of warm water to see what happened. The ones everyone know about are El Nino and La Nina.

“Last season at this time there was a very strong El Nino which gave a lot of people – myself included – a lot of confidence that we could look back at past El Nino seasons and say what was going to happen.

“That wound up not happening.”

While areas around Tahoe were close but perhaps a little short of what was expected in 2015/16, the predicted snow boon in the southwest petered out and Canada and the Pacific Northwest did a whole lot better than called for.

With no strong El Nino or La Nina pattern evident this season (indeed North America models seem to be flip-flopping all over the place) Gratz said that should be “even more of a cautionary tale”.

“I’ve sliced and diced the numbers and looked at past seasons,” he said. “Could I point in one direction? Sure, but I don’t think there is much value with it. From my knowledge of the last 50 years of weather or so the dice aren’t loaded one way or another.”

Guesswork elsewhere?

Gratz gives the example of some recent reports from Chris Telmer and his Tahoe outlook which appeared in places likes Unofficial Networks.

“I know Chris. He is a good guy and a good forecaster. But guess what? Tahoe average snowfall is 350-400 inches (what Telmer called for). It’s not saying anything effectively. Just change the headline to ‘Meteorologist forecasts average winter’. ”

You can read Telmer’s overall outlook here and decide for yourself.

To ram home the point Gratz says he had detailed conversations with a friend who has a PHD in meteorology and is paid significantly by businesses for his forecasts. His thoughts: “He said he has zero clue. He says the people that are coming up with forecasts now are more confident than they should be.”

What to do, then

In summary – it’s not a disaster but if you wanted vindication of a powder-filled season somewhere in North America you’re not going to get that either. Well, yet anyway. Personally, I’d prefer this than someone else just looking for a headline.

If you can hold on for some months yet things could potentially become a little clearer but if you can’t Gratz says keep it flexible and consider these three tips if travelling to or in North America for the ski season:

  • If you want to chase powder base yourself in a place like Denver or Salt Lake City and follow storms. Information will be much more accurate from about 10 days out.
  • Avoid holiday times
  • If you need to book soon consider places that have a good range of alternative options just in case the snow doesn’t work out – or somewhere completely new for the experience.








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