Climate forecasters predict warmer, wetter winter for Northern Utah
Extended three-month outlook shows effects of a developing La Niña
Northern Utah could be on the verge of another stellar winter filled with seemingly endless powder days and milder temperatures over the next three months if the predictions from the forecasters with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration hold up.
Last week, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center released its extended outlook for the United States between November and January. The forecast is based on weather patterns from previous years and the effects of climate factors, such as La Niña and other oscillations.
Forecasters are predicting the likely development of La Niña, which is a sea surface temperature anomaly that develops in the Pacific Ocean. In Northern Utah, a La Niña year typically means colder-than-average temperatures with more precipitation, according to Nick Carr, an NOAA meteorologist.
But, Carr said, the “big caveat” is ever since the 1980s, La Niña years have brought warmer temperatures due to the global climate pattern.
“The outlook is we have about a 40 percent chance of having above normal temperatures and a 30 percent chance of around normal,” he said. “But, the other side of the coin is the precipitation projections.”
The current forecast predicts a slightly above normal chance of Northern Utah experiencing a wetter than average winter, Carr said.
“Temperatures are leaning toward normal, but ever so slightly leaning toward wetter,” he said. “It’s definitely not something to write home about. But, with our area, the big key with that is elevation. Above 8,000 or 9,000 feet you are probably going to get most of your precipitation as snow.”
Carr said Park City, which sits around 7,000 feet, could see more rain than snow if warmer temperatures persist. However, he noted, during the heart of winter – December, January and February – the precipitation will likely be snow.
“Last year was a pretty good year and so was 2013,” he said. “Any given year can be a good year because the higher elevations are less tied to temperatures and more tied to atmospheric river events that really help the snowpack.”
Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, said the predictions for a warmer winter could mean a stronger snowpack. He said the warmth helps insulate the snowpack and slows down the process that tends to promote weak snow growth.
“What we need for a good stable snow year, much like last year, is continual storms and not much break in between storms,” he said.
Gordon pointed out that early-season snows are leading to a more dangerous avalanche setup than last year. He added, “Last year we went from zero to hero because there was a lot more bare ground.”
The Utah Avalanche Center recently issued its first avalanche advisory of the season. He said the advisory was more of an informational update, or a “heads up that we already have snow on the ground.”
Gordon said the early-season snow on northern-facing slopes isn’t going away.
“Even though the days are warm, those slopes are not getting direct sunshine,” he said. “The high elevation shady snows, even though it is shallow, will have grown weak and sugary. Once winter starts going in earnest, we are going to have some avalanche issues.”
Gordon said backcountry travelers need to change their mindset this year because it is starting out different than last.
“If we are planning to head out in to the backcountry, we need to be armed with not only all of our rescue gear, but we need remember that avalanche avoidance is the big ticket item,” he said. “We need to know the types of slopes to avoid and the ones we can go out and have blast on.”
The Utah Avalanche Center is scheduled to host the 10th annual Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop Saturday, Nov. 4, at Snowbird. The day-long event covers backcountry safety and the effects a changing climate has on the area’s snowpack. More workshops will be held in Park City as the season nears. For more information, go to https://utahavalanchecenter.org/event/10th-annual-utah-snow-avalanche-workshop-morning-clinic-motorized-users.
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