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Seasonal Outlook: Winter 2015/2016

(Released: October 12, 2015)


I am sure that most of you are familiar with my feelings on seasonal weather forecasting, but for those of you that have not done so already, you might want to check out my "Soap Box Speech on Seasonal Weather Forecasting". The bottom line is, no one should be making any serious decisions, such as buying/not buying a sled or gear based on this or any outlook.

OK, the usual disclaimer is over, it is time to get down to business. The good news is that there is a higher than average confidence level in the outlook for this winter. The bad news is that things do not look good for just about all of the northern US.

El Nino has reared its ugly head in the central equatorial Pacific and has only been growing stronger since late last winter/early spring (Figure 1). Current forecasts call for a leveling out of the sea surface temps through this winter and then cooling to commence next spring, but a moderate El Nino is likely to continue through most of this winter.

So El Nino will be the gorilla in the room this winter, what does that mean? I think the two most important things to recognize with El Nino are:
1) An El Nino significantly increases the chances that temps will be warmer than average and snowfall will be less than average across much of the northern ˝ to 2/3rds of the US.
2) No two El Ninos are ever the same and there are also other things that drive seasonal weather trends (most of them completely unknown at this point), so each El Nino-Winter is going to be different.

I am going to let the graphic do most of the ugly talking, but will add that while the news looks quite bleak for this winter across most of the northern US, there will still be snows that fall and periods of decent snow-play across the northern US this winter.

I also caution against the late-October/early November “head fake” that can sometimes happen when an El Nino is happening. This “head fake” is a 1-3 week period of below average temps and even sometimes a significant snow event for portions of the upper Midwest. This can lead to false expectations of a cold and snowy pattern setting up for the winter.

So without further ado, here is the breakdown by region:

REGION 1 – The Northwest Midwest: The news is not good. El Nino typically causes temps to be well above average and also snowfall to be a bit below average. There will be snows that fall, I can guarantee that. The problems will be an increased potential for periods of thaws and snow loss. So while this area will still probably be the best bet for snowplay east of the Rockies, one will have to watch the forecast closer and perhaps chase storms more than is usual. Lake snows will likely be less than average as well, but will still provide the best and freshest snow east of the Rockies.

REGION 2The Southeast Midwest: The news for this region is not good as well. While temperature departures may not be as large for the season as they are in the NW Midwest, the NW Midwest is a much cooler region on average. Thus, this region will still see some snow storms, perhaps even a doozie, but struggle with more frequent thaws and low snowcover.

REGION 3The Northeast US: This is always a tricky region when an El Nino is happening. The signals for above average temps and below average snowfall are not as strong as they are in the north central US, but strong El Ninos in the past 30-40 years have typically produced above average temps and below average snowfall and that is the way I am leaning for this winter. I can add that like last year, there is an increased chance for Nor’Easters to develop out of lows passing through the southern US. So there may be some periods of excitement for folks living in this region this winter.

REGION 4The Northern Rockies: This region is typically impacted by El Ninos in a negative way. Not so much with the temps, as most of the snow-play is done in elevations that are immune to warm winters. However, the main storm track in El Nino winters typically happens to the south and well to the north of this region and thus the result is for less than average snowfall. So after a pretty lack-luster winter last year, this one is looking to be only slightly better.

REGION 5The Central Rockies: As with the northern Rockies, I see the northern ˝ of this region to see less than average snowfall occur, but departures will not likely be as large as to the north. Plus, the southern 1/3rd of this region could end up with above average snowfall in the higher terrain, as El Nino will tend to make the storm track across the southern Rockies more active.

REGION 6The Pacific NW and Sierra Range: Most of this region will likely see above average precipitation result in above average snowfall for the higher terrain. It has been several years since the CA mountains saw a great winter and I think the odds are stacked in their favor for that to happen. The northern ˝ of this region will likely see a busier than average storm track, but the result will not seem or be as dramatic as that to the south. The further north you go, the less positive influence El Nino will have on snow-play.

REGION 7Eastern Canada: The story for eastern Ontario, most of Quebec and the Maritime Provinces is pretty similar to the Northeast US.  Meaning that I believe the winter will be a bit warmer than average, with the snowfall to run below average. The exceptions being folks wanting to venture far enough in the northern Maritimes to be able to partake in what might be another banner snow year.