La Niña — What Will the Girl Child Bring?

Post by blogger | October 18, 2010      
Backcountry skiing and La Nina, what does it mean?

La Niña ocean temperatures from NOAA. What happens down there changes the weather up here.

Atmospheric gurus (otherwise known as meteorologists) look to the Equatorial Pacific Ocean for help with their long range forecasting. When the ocean in that area gets colder than normal it’s known as La Niña (the girl child); when warmer it is El Niño. This winter, the little girl will rule. So what will that bring us in terms of backcountry skiing?

The guru who made our Denali trip a total success, Joel Gratz, comes up with interesting answers. In a Boulder Daily Camera newspaper article, he says during La Niña the PNW and perhaps northern U.S. interior areas such as Montana will get pounded. Indeed, he points out, during the 98/99 Niña season was when Mount Baker got the most snow ever recorded in a single season in the United States. I remember that winter, and the stories of how they had to dig out the Baker chairlift towers before they could start the ski lifts.

As for our neighbors up north, my research indicates B.C. areas such as Whistler and Fernie may be favored. Should we get a visit to Bellingham on the book? Probably.

Farther south, say around New Mexico and So Cal, Joel says La Niña can make things dryer. In my reading, I’ve even seen the word “drought” crop up in relation to those areas and their influence from La Niña.

As for us here in Colorado, Joel says we’re in the middle of the trends so our northern mountains might get more snow, and southern ranges such as the San Juans may get less. Our home base is in the central Colorado zone, north of the ‘Juans and south of other stuff, so it is total mystery what’ll happen here. Most years we get just enough snow to keep us going, so just a few big storms can tip us up to the excellent zone — or a few missed storms can drag us into the depths, meaning deep in depth hoar avalanches.

One thing I’m curious about is if La Niña will change the number or intensity of dust storms we get here in Colorado. These “snirt” (snow dirt) events essentially ruin our snowpack for the quality spring skiing Colorado has been known for over the years, and look to have been increasing in frequency and most certainly in severity. Joel says more wind will blow along the Continental Divide due to La Niña, but that’s not what’s causing the evil snirt. Indeed, from what I’ve seen at least some of those dust storms arise from the Four Corners area, and are obviously the result of unstable soil caused by who knows what, but for which drought must play a part. Thus, one could infer that if the little La La exacerbates drought conditions down there, the dang dust storms will continue (and could worsen).

If you’re interested in our dust issue, check out The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Joel’s long range forecast for Colorado is here.



23 Responses to “La Niña — What Will the Girl Child Bring?”

  1. RB October 18th, 2010 1:43 pm

    Sounds just like the forecast at CSAW by Joe Ramsey of the National Weather Service. Joe also said something about a really good forecast year being about 15-25% more likely of being accurate than throwing darts at board of random forecasts. Pray for snow.

  2. Joel Gratz October 18th, 2010 2:17 pm

    The effects of La Nina are pretty well dialed in, so I would be surprised if any seasonal forecasts were much different from one another. That said, Joe Ramey’s stat was that even during a “high predictable” La Nina winter, the La Nina influence only explains about 25% of the variability in snow. So, yeah…the historical effects of La Nina are pretty clear in snowfall histories across the country, but even those stats can be thrown away if one or two big storms do or do not come.

  3. Biggsie October 18th, 2010 2:20 pm

    A pretty interesting article on the effects of dust storm on CO’s snowpack:

    Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River Basins.

    There, according to Painter and colleagues, peak spring runoff from the Colorado River occurs an average of three weeks earlier due to the more recent five-fold increase in such dust.

    Total annual runoff at Lee’s Ferry–and the Colorado River Basin as a whole–has been reduced by about five percent per year.

    “Earlier melt-out allows for an extra three weeks of snow-free conditions,” says Painter. “Transpired water from the uncovered vegetation during those three weeks of no-snow in the basin’s mountains causes the five percent loss of water from the system.”

    – That’s huge!

  4. Lou October 18th, 2010 2:30 pm

    What seems to be missing is a definitive answer about what is making the dust available. Interesting that one of the more well documented events (that I linked to), seems to have originated in a very defined area in the Four Corners. Anyone care to do some map study?

    Makes you wonder if some Navajo or Hopi shaman is chanting up a rad curse on us interlopers.

  5. Joel Gratz October 18th, 2010 2:32 pm

    This is NOT my area of expertise, but a question was asked about this at CSAW and it seems plausible that animal grazing in the area of the four corners helped to loosen a lot of dust. I *think* that this grazing has been reduced in the last decades, but I suppose the dust is still available to be transported.

  6. Tavis October 18th, 2010 2:37 pm
  7. Richard Hackett October 18th, 2010 8:39 pm

    C’mon La Niña, show Colorado some love!

    Also, NASA snapped a high-res photo of the dust storm, with the origin in northeastern Arizona, on April 3, 2009. Anyone care to explore the area for some scientific-type recon? Link here:

  8. Joel Gratz October 18th, 2010 9:59 pm

    More details on snow predictions for the season:

  9. Peter Adler October 19th, 2010 4:49 pm

    I’m a day late on this comment, but maybe someone will catch it. Here is a link to a study that makes the case for livestock grazing causing increased dust production from the Colorado Plateau:

    More recently, ORV’s have become an additional source of soil disturbance.

  10. Lucas Zukiewicz October 19th, 2010 8:29 pm

    My guess would be that a La Nina year would probably be less conducive to seeing the dust layers in the SW and Central CO snowpacks. EL Nino winters are typically dominated by SW flow storms which move into CO from the pacific and with enough velocity to pick up the dust and deposit in on the snowpack in the San Juans and your area. Last year the dust events made it into the Front Range, similar to the El Nino year we had in the winter of 2004-2005 when I saw it in the Front Range during the Valentines Day snow. (My wife was stoked to see red snow, i wasnt)
    While it doesnt totally cut out the SW flow you get, La Nina winters usually bring storms from a more W/NW direction into CO. This should kind of give the idea.

    This is what all the climate folks I work with have always told me, and just my 2 cents. Lets hope you guys down there get a lot of snow with no sandpaper spring skiing. No more of that dust to worry about here in Montucky!

  11. Frank K October 20th, 2010 8:52 am

    Las Vegas Metro population 1980: 500,000
    LV in 2010: 2.3 million
    Phoenix 1980: 1.5 million
    Phoenix in 2010: 4.4 million

    The west has grown pretty intensely over the past couple of decades. All these people living in the west are disturbing the soil- through development, recreation, you name it. I can’t find the data to support it, but I would bet that there is a lot more correlation between human population and dust events than there is for grazing, which I don’t think has exploded the way the population has. Just my guess. Either way, dust on snow will be a popular research subject now that the water ramifications are becoming more well known.

  12. chase harrison October 20th, 2010 3:09 pm

    Ok, remember the epic winter of 07/08. That was a La Nina winter. So there are exceptions to the rule. Also in regards to the snirt, if that is a drought issue,then how could it have come from the 4 corners region last year when most of that area was buried in 8 to 10 feet of snow all winter. I have read that this dust is coming from as far away as Mongolia. Has anybody else out there heard of this or read about?

  13. Lou October 20th, 2010 3:20 pm

    Hi Chase, thanks for the comment! I was taking one dust event, one of the major ones, as an example. It is shown on satellite as coming from 4-corners during a period when there was not snow on the ground in the big obvious dust bowl area.

    I should have provided a link. Here it is:

    Study the Google maps and you’ll find it very interesting where all that dust came from. Curse of the Navajo or Hopi? Perhaps.

  14. Joe MmacMillan October 21st, 2010 8:22 pm

    I keep hearing that this winter will be a bad one but really, I’ve heard this all before. Can you believe that once upon a time about one hundred years ago and more, farmers used to forecast the weather by taking a look at the pigs melt. Apparently there was a part of the intestines called a melt and some farmers tried looking at it and if they found it lumpy it was going to be a tough winter. I don’t know what the farmer was drinking but a great many of the people in the maritime provinces in Canada believed it.

  15. Jack Crognale October 22nd, 2010 8:50 am

    Hi Joel, Thanks for the info, any thoughts on the snow for the Wasatch this winter?

  16. chase harrison October 22nd, 2010 1:33 pm

    Thanks for setting me straight on the dust. The USGS web site is great info.

  17. Lou October 22nd, 2010 2:13 pm

    You’re welcome Chase. Yeah, probably not all the dust events come from Four Corners, but that one sure did. Lou

  18. Joel Gratz October 22nd, 2010 2:27 pm

    Chris Landry sent me this slide showing dust storms by month over the last few years. Last strong La Nina was 2007-2008, and dust storms were prevalent in March and April:

  19. Joel Gratz October 22nd, 2010 2:29 pm

    The slide (above) was from CSAW a few weeks ago, credited to “Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, Silverton – Colorado Dust-on-Snow Program”.

  20. chase harrison October 22nd, 2010 8:34 pm

    Hey Joel,
    Like your commits on over grazing. Perfect, lets blame the BLM, you know BAD LAND MANAGEMENT.

  21. Lou October 23rd, 2010 7:27 am

    Chase, you might check out the land ownership in the Four Corners area… the Navajo and Hopi tribes own the dust that came from there. Probably not PC to mention this, perhaps that’s why no one has brought it up.

    Map here:

  22. chase harrison October 23rd, 2010 8:57 am

    Lou, good point. Didn’t think about who actually owns all that land.

  23. Tommy March 25th, 2011 3:28 pm

    So I am setting up for grabbing turns every month this year. And hoping that we get a great snowpack from La Nina, I need some advice. I will have a narrow window of time to grab my August (2011) turns. I will be near RMNP early in the month. Is there any run, shot, north facing slope… that is usually holding? I need something with decent car access to start skinning or booting from. What recommendations do folks have for areas off the road that I may access for turns?

    I guess the other debate is how many turns constitute a claiming a decent for the month?


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