Thursday, October 3, 2013

Should You Buy A Season Ski Pass?

I can't tell you how many people have asked me this question:  Should I buy a season ski pass this year?

I am not enthusiastic about answering this question, knowing I could be in trouble if wrong.   Nothing is worse than encouraging folks to buy a pass and having the winter end up being a wet, warm washout. So to help me avoid answering this uncomfortable question in person, let's analyze the situation here.


The best tool meteorologists have in forecasting the general nature of the upcoming winter is the correlation between El Nino, La Nina, and Northwest snow.  As may know, El Nino years are ones in which the waters of the central tropical Pacific are warmer than normal, La Nina years when they are cooler than normal, and neutral years (or La Nada) are when they are close to normal.   La Nina years typically have a better snowpack than normal and El Nino years have less than average.  Neutral years are generally in the normal range.

So what about the upcoming winter?  Fortunately, by early October we have a very good idea of what the situation will be.  And the answer is...

According to the experts in the NOAA/NWS Climate Prediction Center we expect this year to be a neutral or La Nada one (roughly 60% chance), with a La Nina being a roughly 25% possibility.    So based on the El Nino/Nina correlation we would expect a normal snow year.


The NOAA Climate Prediction Center does a seasonal weather prediction where they consider many different tools, including the El Nino/La Nina correlations.  Their latest forecast is for above normal temperatures in the west and equal chances (EC) of above or below normal precipitation (see graphic).   That does not sound good for snow.  But keep in mind that these predictions have had very limited skill.  A good example: their prediction in August for September precipitation completely missed the record-breaking rainfall for this month!


 The National Weather Service runs their Coupled Forecast System (CFS) out for 9 months.  Here is the forecast "anomaly" or difference from climatology (or normal) for temperature at about 5000 ft (850 hPa pressure) for December-January-February and January-February-March.  Temperatures are above normal... Not good for snow. I bet this was the main driver of the warm forecasts above.
In desperation for a tie breaker, what does the Old Farmer's Almanac suggest?  Here it is:
 "Winter will be much snowier than normal, with frequent snows from mid-December through the first three weeks of January. Rainfall will be near normal, with temperatures below normal, on average, in the north and above in the south. The coldest periods will occur in mid- to late December, early to mid-January, and mid- to late January."

OK, so where does this leave snow lovers and those dying to buy those discount seasonal passes?  My main conclusion:  There is no reason at this point to expect the upcoming winter to have more snow than normal in the mountains.  This is not going to be a snowy La Nina year. 


The extended range  models are suggesting a warmer than normal winter, but their skill this far out is marginal at best.  The Farmer's Almanac has no skill, so we better not take it too seriously.

So this is not a slam-dunk year for buying that seasonal ski pass.  At this point, I suspect there is no strong reason not to buy the pass if the savings are sufficient.  I am sure there will be some skiing this year.   But there are no guarantees in this business, and if you buy an annual ski pass, don't complain to me if things go bad!

6 comments:

Michael810 said...

Hi Prof. Mass, My friends and I bought our season passes in May due high confidence in the coming season. The savings were significant too...

S.M.West said...

I have heard you mention before that neutral (La Nada) years have higher occurrences of windstorms. Are there other weather events that happen more frequently during La Nada years compared to other years?

Christopher Pace said...

For me, it only takes 10 ski hill visits for the season pass to pay for itself. I believe we will have at least 10 good ski days this coming winter.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the ski season update! However, just curious how all the forecasts out there missed letting us know about the first frost last night. Typically it's the kind of thing the local networks like to talk about and helps me know when to bring in my tropicals. Out here in Maple Valley there was no mistaking the evidence on the rooftops this morning. I know what my job this weekend will be, cleaning pots and shaking out plants so as not to bring in too many frogs.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the ski season update! However, just curious how all the forecasts out there missed letting us know about the first frost last night. Typically it's the kind of thing the local networks like to talk about and helps me know when to bring in my tropicals. Out here in Maple Valley there was no mistaking the evidence on the rooftops this morning. I know what my job this weekend will be, cleaning pots and shaking out plants so as not to bring in too many frogs.

JewelyaZ said...

I don't care about snow at all... I'd rather we didn't get much here in the lowlands, maybe a 4" Christmas-Day snow to keep the kids happy... but what I REALLY want to know is, how many times can I plant/harvest winter crops here (how much more lettuce?) and when should I put in the peas? Feb? Mar? I know it's too soon to tell, but I thought I'd offer that as a relief to the snow question. :-)