In typical El Niño conditions, the jet stream is stronger than normal, which can bring more precipitation and more storms across the southern tier of the United States. Meanwhile, the northern part of the country, including the northern Rockies, typically becomes drier than average.
Joe Ramey, a meteorologist/forecaster for the National Weather Service, said Telluride usually has more precipitation annually during El Niño events, but not in the heart of winter.
"Telluride has an excellent climate record that dates back as far as 1939, which we can look at moderate to strong El Niño events," he said. "During these events, Telluride gets increased annual precipitation, which typically falls more in the fall, September and October, and the spring, February and March. Usually December and January are drier than normal under strong to moderate El Niños."
Ramey also explained that Colorado is typically warmer during these events, but it can vary from valley to valley as well.
"Locally, places like Silverton, sometimes Telluride and Crested Butte can sit in deep cold inversions, but that changes from valley to valley," he said. "Usually Colorado is warmer and the forecast is for temperatures to be slightly warmer this season."
Telluride and the Western Slope of Colorado often times don't fit the national pattern of El Niño events though. The 1997-98 El Niño was one of the strongest events in recent history and Telluride's annual precipitation average dropped.
Ramey said "1997-98 was a near record year for most of the country," adding that while the average amount of precipitation for Telluride during an El Niño event is 24.38 inches, that winter, "Telluride received 22.75 inches, so it dropped a bit annually." Ramey added that although precipitation averages dropped in 1997-98, precipitation in the fall and spring was still above average in Telluride.
James McCutcheon, a weather forecaster for Plum TV, said area residents should be excited about this year's El Niño event.
"If you look at past events, Telluride has really had good winters," he said. "Earlier this December they changed the status of the El Niño from fair to moderate and that it is picking up in strength. In all likelihood the precipitation will pick up later in the winter though."
El Niño refers to an ocean-atmosphere climate phenomenon that links to warming of ocean surfaces, which usually creates more storm energy and warm temperatures across the United States. Typically El Niño events occur every three to five years, but they can occur from two to seven years. The term El Niño was originally used to refer to the warming surfaces off the coast of South America.
"El Niño is really a condition of the area off the coast of Peru," Ramey said. "If ocean surface temperatures raise over five months, we call it an El Niño. Waters off the edge of Peru are warm which provides more energy to tap into for storms to build."
Opposite of an El Niño event is a La Niña, in which the surface waters cool over a period of five months. La Niña typically has the opposite effect of El Niño. The northern part of the United States receives more moisture annually and the southern part is much drier. The impacts of both are more clearly seen during the winter seasons. The most recent La Niña event was 1995.
By Martinique Davis
Snowfall early this week accumulated well into the double digits, giving the Telluride Ski Resort a new white wardrobe. With nearly 19 inches of new snow allowing base totals to creep over the 30-inch mark (a 38-inch base is reported at the top of the mountain), the recent storm opened the door for ski resort officials to give the much anticipated pronouncement: Ski area operations are officially in full swing.
"We are thrilled that all the snow enables us to open so much of the mountain this early," said Ken Stone, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Telski. All lifts will open Saturday, Dec. 16, with individual runs opening based on conditions.
Runs off of lifts 1, 4, 5 and 9 have been open to the public; on Saturday, terrain off of lifts 7, 8 and 10, Ute Park lift (11), Prospect Bowl lift (12), Lynx lift (13) and Gold Hill lift (14) will open as well. Big Billie's and the Prospect Bowl Warming Hut will join Gorrono Ranch and Guiseppes's atop lift 9, as open dining facilities.
"Ski conditions are excellent," said Ski Patrol Director Gary Richard. "We're off to a super start. We're just one storm away from opening runs on lift 6, and we're anticipating that to happen next week."
In total, Telski predicts 22 to 25 more trails will be open on Saturday, depending on snowmaking.
Probable trail openings for Saturday include Sundance, Enchanted Forest and Double Cabin off of chair 10; Nellie, Little Maude and Ute Park off of lift 11; and Madison, Maygirl, Stella, and Magnolia off of lift 12.
Gold Hill runs expected to open are Little Rose, Millions, Dynamo, Electra and Lower Woozley's Way.
Prospect Basin's hike-to terrain, including Bald Mountain, Confidence, Crystal, La Rosa and Genevieve, will remain closed.
Since the storm, Telski's snowmaking, grooming and ski patrol departments have been working nonstop to ready the new terrain for opening. Snowmaking efforts have been focused on heavy use egress and linkage runs, such as Woozley's Way off of lift 6, and the Coonskin and Telluride Trail runs off of lift 7, which will enable skiers to access the town of Telluride.
Grooming activities have increased significantly across the mountain in preparation for this weekend's openings, with operations concentrated heavily in the Ute Park, Prospect Bowl and lift 10 areas.
At least 4,000 skiers are expected on the mountain this weekend, and with the Christmas holiday weekend stretching over four days, next weekend is expected to be busier than usual.
Skiers and boarders enjoying the new snow earlier this week likely heard the loud ricochet of explosives at least a few times during their ski outing, as ski patrol began a full-blown assault on avalanche hazards across the ski area. Avalanche mitigation using explosives is a common and effective way members of ski patrol stabilize what has shaped up to be an increasingly unstable snowpack.
Telluride Ski Patrol Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz reported Thursday that avalanche control measures have or will have been performed on every avalanche prone slope on the ski area by Saturday's opening.
Additionally, the Top-a-Ten Snowshoe and Nordic Center will open this weekend, offering visitors another way to explore the mountain. Guided snowshoe tours through thick forest and serene meadows are available daily at 10 a.m. The two- to three-hour tours provide educational recreation for all ages and abilities. Learn about wildlife, trees, geology, history and climate. Snowshoers must dress appropriately, and bring water and a snack. Nordic skiers can enjoy 10 kilometers of groomed trails, with maps available at the Top-a-Ten Yurt. Trails are open 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
More snow is in the forecast for the Telluride region of the San Juans, which, if significant, could help to allow the opening of even more terrain across the resort. The Weather Underground website calls for a 60 percent chance of precipitation around Telluride starting midday Sunday, with up to a 90 percent cloud cover and 60 percent chance of snow continuing until mid-morning on Tuesday.