*this post was prepared for the 2015/16 season, for information about the 2018/19 season, click here
If you planed to visit a ski resort in North America this winter, you’ve probably heard commentary that a Godzilla El Niño will leave B.C’s ski resorts high and dry like last season with a large portion of precipitation falling as rain.
But then again, maybe it won’t.
That’s the thing about science – looking at empirical or theoretical evidence can yield two very different results.
In this post I’m going to walk you through some of the empirical data from the last 30 years at Whistler Blackcomb that will show, in our region (in recent history), that there is little to no direct correlation between intense El Niño years and incredibly low snowfall.
A quick intro to the Godzilla El Niño & the Blob
Normally the prevailing easterly surface winds, known as the Trade Winds, will push sun-warmed ocean water from east to west allowing cold water to rise from deep in the ocean. But in El Niño years the Trade Winds slow down or sometimes even reverse, causing ocean temperatures to rise. As you can see from the image above, in 2015 the swath of warm ocean water is considerably larger than the El Niño event of 1997.
On the 2015 image, you can also see The Blob hovering just off the coast of southern BC. This is a giant swell of warmer-than-average water that has sat off the coast of the Pacific North West that for the last two years driving the polar jet stream away from BC and into northern Canada.
Couple The Blob with possibly the most intense El Niño in recorded history and you have a recipe for a very, very wet winter.
But what to make of it all?
Meteorologists have their reservations when predicting what the season will bring for ski resorts because of altitude and the chaotic nature of mountain weather patterns. Label it as hit and you’ll be the first to be lynched by the angry mobs when the rain washes all the snow away. Label it as a miss and you’ll be contributing to the death of the ski industry with your speculation.
And don’t get me started on the ridiculous clairvoyance of almanacs.
Don’t panic here comes the (snow) science
We learn in high school science class the difference between empirical and theoretical knowledge. Theory is used to describe, predict and explain phenomenon (like weather), whereas empirical knowledge is based on experimentation and observation.
Instead of theorizing about how terrible this winter is going to be, let’s have a look at some facts from Whistler Blackcomb’s historical data. It may just make you feel better about El Niño altogether:
- Worst snowfall recorded in recent history was last season at 672cm of snow. 2014/15 was not considered an El Niño year
- The two other very strong El Niño years in the last three decades were 1982/83 which received 886cm of snow and 1997/98 which received 1,009cm of snow. Both seasons still more received more snow than the non-El Niño 2014/15 season
- 2004/05 was also a bad snow year with only 685cm of snow. That was considered a weak El Niño not a Godzilla one
- Another weak El Niño was 2006/07. That year the resort received over 1,400cm of snow
- 2009/10 and 2002/03 were also considered moderate El Niño years. Those winters received 1,434cm and 1,230cm respectively.
Here it is in a graph for easier reference if you’re like me and prefer images to bullet points.
Or in more succinct terms: a Godzilla El Niño doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good year, nor does it mean it’s going be a terrible year. It’s just going to be another winter in Whistler.
Whistler Blackcomb is more aware than anyone of climate change and the increasingly unpredictable weather we are experiencing. That’s why it has invested heavily in snowmaking (very useful legacy infrastructure of the 2010 Winter Olympics), an alpine lift system to keep skiers up high and is even trying to slow the retreat of the Horstman Glacier with snow guns.
Whistler Blackcomb also has a few aces up it’s sleeve that give it the edge over other resorts in the region that had to pack it in early last year. The elevation means snow will usually fall somewhere on the mountains and the presence of glaciers – despite their recession – will offer skiing for decades to come at the very least.
The snow last weekend is an encouraging sight indeed, but as long as everyone enters this Godzilla year with tempered expectations, we’ll hopefully weather another El Niño without the world ending.
Keep up to date with local weather resources and you’ll come out in the spring with some good powder days under your belt.
Vince Shuley is an award winning writer, photojournalist and content creator specializing in outdoor lifestyle and action sports. He can be usually found chasing skiers and mountain bikers with his camera through the backcountry of British Columbia or walking his wolfdog through the streets of Whistler. He manages digital content for Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures.[/two_third_last]