Snowmaking began weeks ago on Red Mountain; the hill’s expected to open on December 8. (Photo: John Boivin)

West Kootenay ski hills could see impact of El Nino this winter

The weather phenomenon brings slightly milder temperatures to the area

People hoping to hit the slopes of the West Kootenay’s ski hills may have to be a patient a little while longer.

And in the longer term, they may find this winter produces some rough ski conditions.

A local weather forecaster says the colder, dry air from the Arctic expected Sunday is not going to create great snow-making conditions for the next week.

And Jesse Ellis of the Southeast Fire Centre says the fact it’s an El Nino year will mean slightly warmer temperatures will affect snow levels in the latter half of this winter.

El Nino appears

“The latest model output I am looking at for is anywhere from +.5 to +1.5C warmer temperatures,” he says. “They take all the models together into something called an ensemble, and the ensemble mean is right around +1.0.

“So our confidence is relatively high we will stay in a weak El Nino phase through the winter months.”

The El Nino is an ocean phenomenon in the south Pacific that affects weather patterns around the world— most particularly in North and South America. When the warm water of the El Nino moves east towards Asia, it creates colder water conditions off the South American coast; when the opposite occurs, warm water moves along the coast.

While the mechanics of it aren’t completely understood, scientists can predict the effect of an El Nino or La Nina with pretty good accuracy.

For our part of the world, the El Nino means a slightly warmer, and dryer winter.

“El Nino is most helpful telling us about average temperatures,” says Ellis. “It’s not as useful for telling us anything much about precipitation.”

And Ellis says those averages mean the snow levels will tend to be a little higher with the warmer temperatures.

“It doesn’t tell you anything about individual storms,” cautions Ellis. “We can still have big snow dumps right to the valley bottoms, even if the average temperature is a little higher than normal.”

And while slightly warmer temperatures could mean slightly higher snowfalls— good for hills— it come with bad news too.

“The rain-snow boundary will be shifted a little up the hill,” he says. “A little higher temperatures means a little more of the hill is going to be subject possibly to more frequent rains.”

“What you can say is in broad, general terms, with snow levels a little higher than usual, that you are a little more prone to seeing rain mixed with snow at lower elevations of the alpine.”

Still waiting

But all this is moot for the moment, as hills wait for the real winter snows to come as they prepare to open.

Red Mountain is scheduled to officially open December 8, and Whitewater December 7.

But cold, dry Arctic air is expected to stall over the Kootenays next week— channelled here by a strong high pressure ridge located just off the coast of B.C.— that seems to be in no hurry to move.

“We’ll have to wait for this ridge to move off before we see our next best chance to get snow in the region,” says Ellis. “That’s not likely until at least the end of next week.”

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Ski towns like Rossland are waiting for the big winter storms to arrive. (Photo: John Boivin)

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