BEND, Ore. — In the past two years, skiers and snowboarders have enjoyed two of the snowiest winters on record at Mt. Bachelor ski area.
But they should not expect more of the same this winter.
An El Niño weather pattern is expected to develop in the Pacific Northwest sometime within the next month, bringing with it above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation, according to Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
That translates to less snowfall, which is not exactly what eager snowriders want to hear. Dello said that the strength of the El Niño will likely be "moderate."
"Where we really see the signal is in the temperature," Dello said. "So, that's bad for skiers because the temperature needs to be cool enough for the precipitation to fall as snow."
The past two winters were categorized as La Niñas (lower temperatures, more precipitation) in the Northwest, and the Cascades received a significant amount of snow. In winter 2010-11, Mt. Bachelor set a record with 665 inches of snowfall, more than 55 feet. Last winter, the mountain was pounded with 528 inches of snow — and some 150 inches of that fell in March. After a relatively dry December, Bachelor was hit with so much snow at one point in January that it had to shut down for a day.
Dello said it was one of the driest Decembers on record for the Northwest — and it had skiers and snowboarders who were expecting La Niña growing anxious.
"December was rough last year because everyone expected all this snow — skiers love La Niña," Dello said. "It was happening, it just wasn't happening the way we like it in the Northwest."
The El Niño predicted for this year is expected to be in effect for the next three months, said Dello, citing forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. That means the weather could change later in the winter.
"It's a little bit of a gamble, but the CPC is saying that the next three months look like below-average precipitation," Dello said.
Dello was quick to add that the El Niño of the 2009-10 winter in the Northwest still included a wet spring and significant snowfall in the Cascades in late winter and early spring.
So, could this all just mean another late winter in Central Oregon? That's impossible to determine at this point, even for the experts.
"These things sometimes act differently than we expect," Dello said. "I think the temperature signal is still strong enough that I would bet on a warmer winter."
The El Niño prediction is based on weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean, and the CPC makes its prediction for the entire Pacific Northwest, Dello explained. That means that the El Niño event could, for example, be stronger in Washington than in Central Oregon.