The Snow Gauge

Running the rule over the ski & snowboard industry since 1995

Where to go El Nino: Snow weather guru reveals all!

Posted by on Nov 19, 2015 in United States | 0 comments

When it comes to technical snow reporting it doesn’t get much better in the US than the guys at

Looking at their national forecasts with numbers plonked across the map denoting predicted falls reminds me of bingo night. The stoke certainly grows when you see two digits, the first of which starts with a four (and that’s inches not centimetres).

These guys are real pros too, with three full-time and five contracted forecasters over winter. They are either degree-qualified meteorologists who love riding or have high-end weather forecasting knowledge (and ride of course as well). They must be doing something right with an estimated 1.5 million riders using their site.

I had a chat with founder Joel Gratz and he took me through what they do, and more importantly:

– How he thinks the season will play out
– Tips for the best places to go
– Some areas that may actually get below average snowfalls
– Insights into Canada and even touching on Japan.

Tell us about the Open Snow concept and website

This was a passion project. I went to school for meteorology and loved snow since I was a little kid. I moved to Colorado after growing up skiing hardpack on the east coast. Fresh snow was a new thing but I quickly fell in love with it. Then I got frustrated. The forecasts just weren’t capturing the subtleties that some skiers wanted to know about when to ski powder. It took me a few years to work it out myself then started doing some updates – mostly for myself and friends. But a lot of people liked it so I quit my job and built it …

Why was working out snowfall in Colorado so imprecise?

The mountains have their own little idiosyncrasies that the computer weather models don’t always capture. The bigger the mountains, the more difficult the terrain and the harder it is for the computer models to handle. The modelling has gotten better … but it’s still not perfect. I would see the biases in the forecasts that were due to the mountains. It took a couple of years of reading the forecasts and going skiing, expecting one thing and getting another and working what went wrong to learn those tricks. That’s what I try to bring to people … and rather then talking about a percentage chance of snow, putting it simply to say which areas will be best to find powder on any given day.

Take us through how the snow bearing systems deliver to your main mountain states.

The closer to the Pacific Ocean the larger the storms. The key here is temperature, there’s often a rain-snow line, particularly with lower elevations. Snow can be thicker and heavier. When you get into Utah and Colorado and Wyoming you can still get large storms but it is mostly in consistent, moderate storms – 6, 8, 10 inches. Temperatures here tend to be lower and on average the snow is a little fluffier.

We’ve seen some great snow already in places – but how do you see the season panning out when the El Nino really kicks in?

The strength of El Nino is only measured by water temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. In that regard it is potentially the strongest on record. But it’s separate to snowfall and their patterns. That part is really difficult. A strong El Nino and good snowfalls in previous events doesn’t guarantee that translates to this season. But what we are expecting is that the best snowfall during the meat of the season will occur in the southern US: New Mexico, Arizona and parts of California. Northern areas: Wyoming , Montana and up into Alberta and British Columbia could be drier with Utah and Colorado right in between. There’s already been some debate about what’s been happening (particularly with the big early falls in places like Alberta) and that it doesn’t match an El Nino but it’s early and it the full effects may not kick in until Christmas …

“(The El Nino) is potentially the strongest on record”

I am going to put you on the spot here. Given what you are seeing where would you be heading this season?

Best case scenario – give yourself a car and have 7-10 days with some flexibility and maybe base in Denver or Salt Lake City, there’s great snow out of each of them … but I appreciate that’s a lot of driving. You can also dip down to New Mexico and hit Taos which is a phenomenally fun and pretty steep mountain and they have a very high chance of seeing above average snowfall. So that’s my general take but places that stick out in my mind are Mammoth in California and Tahoe. It’s not a slam dunk that it’s going to be an amazing year but the odds keep going up. Oh, and Taos (again!) … it’s a little hard to get to but there are few crowds and that mountain!

What about Canada?

We have forecasts for every lift-serviced resort and heli-ski operation. We don’t have a person dedicated to Canada but Larry (Larry Schick, their Northwest Meteorologist) – will talk about Whistler from time to time. Canada is an interesting deal – during El Nino the interior sections on average show below average snowfall but we did see good conditions with those early storms … The coastal areas are more complicated. I would put places like Whistler at average to maybe a little bit above average. One complication is the moisture feed when it comes from the tropics (Pineapple Express). Warmer temperatures can really increase the level of the rain-snow line and that can play havoc with some of the mountains in BC. It’s just something to keep an eye on this year.

And Europe and Japan?

We haven’t been paying too close of attention but El Nino doesn’t have as discernible effect in Europe. In Japan from the research I have done Hokkaido does a little bit better than average while Honshu is about average or a little below. That’s just an initial observation but it’s a little early in the season for there.


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