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Experts weigh in on upcoming winter

December 7, 2012

What will this winter look like? Even the experts aren't willing to guess. Photo/Wendilyn grasseschi

It hasn’t taken long for the relief generated by last week’s storm to give way to anxiety in Mammoth.

What’s next, everyone wants to know. What will this winter be like?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is anything but clear.

“I don’t trust forecasts any longer than 72 hours out,” said Frank Gehrke, the chief snow surveyor for the state Department of Water.

“Having a wet December (as this one is shaping up to be, due to the last series of storms) doesn’t mean a thing for the future. I’ve learned not to predict and just work on what comes.”

“There’s no clear signal, now that El Niño is clearly going to be weak this year,” said David Pierce, a climate researcher for the Scripps Institute.

“When El Niño is in place, it means you can (but not necessarily will) get those heavy precipitation events but when it’s weak, there’s not a clear signal either way.”
In other words, he said, the winter could be wet, it could be d
ry, or it could be anywhere in between.
“Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough information to know more,” he said. “And even if there was a strong El Niño, the influence from El Niño is already weak for the Eastern Sierra.”

The series of wet storms last week, termed an “atmospheric river,” did help California with its drought conditions, he said, beginning to fill depleted reservoirs and soaking the ground with much-needed moisture.

But that does nothing to predict the coming winter.

Howard Sheckter, Mammoth’s longtime amateur weatherman, was equally noncommittal.

“Everyone has agreed there will be little to no El Niño effect this winter,” he said. “Now that there’s no bias, there’s no strong inkling of what this winter is going to do.”

He said there are some long-range weather patterns beginning to emerge that look advantageous for snowfall in the Sierra—and some that don’t—further adding to the lack of certainty.

Meteorologists he spoke to have said the patterns now building look most similar (strongest weighted average) to the winters of 2000-04, 1968-69, and 2009-10. They look a little less like the winter of 1962-63 (second strongest weighted average), and a little less again (third strongest weighted average) than 2010-11.

Sheckter hadn’t done the snowfall math with these winters when interviewed, but according to the data from Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service, some of the winters noted above were associated with some decent snowfall—and others were not.

For example, the winter of 2010-11 was Mammoth’s biggest snowfall—661 inches.

The winter of 2008-09 came in strong, too, with 469 inches.

But the winter of 2003-04 only dropped 348 inches, close to Mammoth’s average snow depth of 351 inches. The other winters Sheckter mentioned, 1962-63 and 1968-69, occurred before data was taken on a regular basis at Mammoth Mountain—all leading up to a coming winter that even the experts aren’t willing to predict.

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