"We had a record November with 64 inches, which got us off to a good start," said Teri Grossheim, Managing Snow Reporter for the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. "We are ahead of a lot of years," she said, citing the 1996 – 1997 season as another very good year when 52 inches of snow fell in October. "We're knockin' at the door" for a record year.
Telski has recorded 227 inches of snow on the mountain for the 2004-2005 season as of yesterday, coming very near to last season's total of 259.3 inches. "And March is usually one of our snowiest months," added Grossheim.
Could global warming be to thank for our good fortune, and to blame for the North's unseasonably warm temperatures?
"People like to ask the question about how our current weather relates to global warming, and I can't really speculate," said Brian Avery, hydrologist and meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. "You can ask one hundred meteorologists about global warming and you'll get one hundred different answers. It's important to understand that we have 120 years of weather data for a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. We don't know what normal weather cycles are for the earth. There is a lot of information yet to come in."
Global warming is predicted to result in more storms and thus bring more moisture to the southwest area of the United States, but, said Avery, "the weather is also warmer, meaning more rain and less snow. Or it could result in the melting of the ice caps, raising the sea level and causing flooding."
One weather system Telluride can thank for its bountiful snow season this year is the "Pineapple Express."
"Convection over the central Pacific Ocean shifted the Madden-Julian Oscillation eastward," said Avery. The MJO is a weather system that stretches halfway around the world along both sides of the equator. Due to its eastward shift, "a southerly jet stream picked up moisture by the Hawaiian islands," said Avery, earning the Pineapple Express storm system its name. "That's what happened in January. Low pressure developed off the coast of California and spit out system after system into the area. It was a moist regime with lots of disturbances. California takes the brunt of it, and as a result we've had a moist, warm atmosphere over the past two months."
Although the MJO is often associated with accelerating and augmenting a developing El Niño, "the Madden-Julian Oscillation is a cycle within itself, independent of and not related to El Niño," said Avery. "We've been in a weak El Niño situation for some time."
A composite pattern of previous El Niño cycles suggests a precipitation pattern for the United States in winter results in drier than average conditions in the Pacific Northwest and above-average rain and snow in the Southwest and southern California. Despite the similarity between the late December 2004 – January 2005 pattern and the El Niño composite, El Niño does not appear to be the primary contributing factor for these heavy precipitation storms.
"Two things happen to cause El Niño. First, there is a break down in the equatorial easterly winds, and second, there are above average sea surface temperatures," said Avery. "The sea surface temperatures are only 1-2 degrees Celsius above normal. It doesn't have that much affect on our weather."
While the increased moisture has been a great relief for the area, Avery said southwestern Colorado has still not recovered from the drought. "If you deposit $100 into your bank account but you have a $300 deficit, you still owe money," he said. "Not as much, but you still owe."
Drought develops in stages, and the area still needs a lot of water to replenish the aquifer and reservoir systems. It will take several winters of above average moisture like the current one to replenish the system.
"Snowpack for the San Juans – Animas, Dolores, San Miguel – is at 155 percent of normal," said Avery. "Right now it looks like it could be higher than normal, but if we dry out it can dwindle quickly." The snowpack typically peaks around mid-April.
"Our biggest potential concern right now is that we'll have a later than normal snowpack peak," said Avery. "If it builds into May and then we get those much warmer temperatures, it will run off rapidly with the potential for flooding."
As to what the weather holds for southwest in the immediate future, Avery said the already weak El Niño system is continuing to die. "The southwest U.S. looks to be warmer and wetter than normal for March and April, which may not be conducive to mid-level snowpack," said Avery. "March is typically one of the two wettest months in western Colorado. But if you remember last year, March was really warm and dry. This year's models are indicating wetter conditions. We expect things to return to a neutral pattern for the beginning of the summer."