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Feature Story
To Snow or Not to Snow: Predicting Winter Weather in the Mid-Atlantic
Author thumbnail By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor

To snow, or not to snow. That is the question.

That is the question that haunts Mid-Atlantic skiers and snowboarders as each winter season approaches. Will we have a snowy season? Or at least a cold season, so local ski resorts can dial their snowguns up to 10?

Alas, this is a fickle geography when it comes to weather and predictions. Some years (I’m looking at you, last year), frigid temperatures arrive early but are just a tease, evaporating into springlike weather in December and summerlike weather in January. In fact, sustained warm temperatures throughout last winter — and a dearth of natural snow — created one of the worst ski seasons in recent memory in the Mid-Atlantic. Many resorts could only open a fraction of their terrain, and had a painfully short season.

A winter without snow is like a song without a melody.

Yet, in other years, the cold and snow arrive early and often, creating excellent snow conditions that last into late March.

So what of this year? Will we see a great season or a re-run of a balmy, snowless season?

There are plenty of ways people try to predict long-term weather patterns, but ultimately they are just that: predictions. They don’t always pan out.

With that cautionary note, let’s take a look at some of the ways one might try to predict what kind of winter Mother Nature has in store for the Mid-Atlantic.

Punxsutawney Phil

Every February 2, a certain groundhog named Phil makes an appearance in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney. If he sees his shadow and returns to his hole, it is believed that six more weeks of winter will follow. But if he does not see his shadow, it is said that he has predicted an early spring — which, for us skiers, means a ski season cut tragically short.

Punxsutawney Phil makes his weather productions annually on February 2, despite having no official training in meteorology.

There might be some who are skeptical of a groundhog’s ability to predict weather patterns going six weeks into the future, particularly given this particular groundhog’s absence of formal meteorological training. Others might say that the prediction boils down to whether it is sunny or not on February 2, arguing that the use of a groundhog to measure whether it’s sunny or cloudy is superfluous.

And for those skeptics, well, they’re probably right.

This form of folklore is a fun and longstanding cultural event, and a marketing coup for the town of Punxsutawney. But until Phil starts utilizing satellites, weather balloons, radar systems, and computer models, we probably can’t rely on his predictions.

In fact, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — an entity that employs human scientists — Punxsutawney Phil’s accuracy rate is a mere 40%. That’s close to even odds, which is what you would expect: after all, there are two possible outcomes — more winter or an early spring.

Clearly we need a more scientifically rigorous way of predicting what kind of ski season it will be.

Which brings us to…

The Farmer’s Almanac and Old Farmer’s Almanac

Dating all the way back to 1792, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is published every September and attempts to predict long-range weather patterns for the U.S. and North America. In 1818, the Farmer’s Almanac — a separate abd competing publication — also entered circulation. Both have been published annually since.

In addition to forecasting upcoming weather patterns, the Old Farmer’s Almanac includes stories on gardening, sports, astronomy, folklore, and evolving trends in fashion, food, and technology. Similarly, the Farmer’s Almanac includes stories on natural remedies and the best days to do various outdoor activities, such as, perhaps, watching a groundhog emerge from the ground.

The Farmer’s Almanac has been in continuous publication since 1818.

Each publication attempts to predict weather patterns up to two years in advance, with impressively detailed granularity.

According to Wikipedia, the publishers of the Farmer’s Almanac keep their weather predicting methods on the down low, confessing only that they use an “exclusive mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, astrology, and many other methods.”

The publishers argue that their forecasts are 80 to 85% accurate, pointing to some of the “famous” weather patterns they have accurately forewarned (while, perhaps, omitting the ones they didn’t accurately forewarn). They also argue that they’ve been in business longer than the National Weather Service, which didn’t get going until 1870, making it a comparatively young weather forecasting entity — just a youngin’, really.

The even older Old Farmer’s Almanac is said to use the same weather predicting formula it’s had in place since the late 1700s, incorporating solar activity, astronomy cycles, and previous weather patterns. The exact formula is kept secret, locked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in New Hampshire.

Despite these long-running but secret formulas, as with Punxsutawney Phil, according to Wikipedia, independent scientific analyses of both Almanac’s predictions show an accuracy rate of about 50%. And scientists claim it is currently impossible to accurately provide granular forecasts — of the type the Almanacs present months ahead of time — more than 7-10 days in advance.

Is there really no way to predict what the winter will be like other than flipping a coin?

For what it’s worth, the Old Farmer’s Almanac has predicted a very snowy season for most of America for 2023-2024. Predicting a “winter wonderland,” the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts that snowfall will be above normal with normal to colder-than-normal temperatures in areas that typically receive snow. (Sorry, Florida — no snow for you.) The Mid-Atlantic region falls within its “cold, snowy” prediction, although New England is forecast to receive mild snow.

Meteorologists

Thankfully, we can look to scientists leveraging the latest technologies and methods to make long-term weather forecasts.

Meteorologists use a combination of scientific tools, data analysis, and modeling techniques. While they can somewhat accurately predict weather a few days in advance, as the time horizon expands, their predictions trend more towards general weather patterns vs. granular predictions.

To make these long-range forecasts, they begin with a review of historical weather data, in an attempt to understand trends and anomalies. For example, a pattern that worries ski resorts is that Earth’s climate is changing, leading to an increase in temperatures. While that long-term trend has been noted by scientists, there still can be large variances year-to-year.

Modern technology assists meteorologists in making rough long-range weather predictions.

Meteorologists also use satellites, weather balloons, radar systems, and ground-based weather stations to gather temperature, humidity, wind pattern, and air pressure readings, factoring current data into their long-range models.

As computers become more powerful, meteorologists are able to rely on more accurate data modeling. By digesting and analyzing vast amounts of information, computer algorithms can attempt to simulate the Earth’s climate system, taking into account interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, and ice. Scientists can experiment with different variables and see how the models react.

Since any individual model can have weaknesses, meteorologists will often combine multiple computer models, using a technique called ensemble forecasting. By running many simulations across many models, they can produce more robust predictions.

Meteorologists also look closely at oceanic conditions, as it is now understood the seas play a prominent role in influencing weather patterns across the planet. With oceans covering more than 70 percent of the surface of our planet, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

Variations of temperature of the Pacific Ocean can produce a profound impact on weather patterns. In fact, scientists have identified two types of weather phenomena related to these variations, which they call El Niño and La Niña.

After detecting warming of ocean waters in the central and eastern Pacific, scientists expect El Niño to impact North American weather this winter.

El Niño

For Mid-Atlantic skiers and snowboarders, the arrival of another El Niño-influenced winter could be good or bad news.

Will El Niño have a positive or negative impact on Mid-Atlantic skiing this winter?

El Niño can influence the level of precipitation and temperature — two variables that directly impact how much snow will build up on the slopes of a ski resort. But its impact on precipitation and temperature varies by region.

In El Niño years, Southern California and the Southwest typically experience wetter and stormier conditions. In mountain regions where it’s colder, such as the Sierra Nevada range, this can lead to an increase in snow. In the Pacific Northwest and Rockies, the impact has been less consistent, but these regions have often seen less snowfall and milder temperatures.

The Southeast typically sees warmer and drier conditions during an El Niño year, leading to less snowfall. In the Northeast, there can be a mix of impacts. El Niño tends to bring milder temperatures, which can result in less snow. But a vibrant nor’easter storm or two can make up for that with heavy snowfall — assuming the temperature is below freezing.

In the Mid-Atlantic, El Niño brings warmer than average temperatures, which is not ideal news for snowmakers at area resorts. And in past years, El Niño has negatively impacted Mid-Atlantic skiing. For example, in January, 2007, area skiers watched the slopes melt as warm temperatures — believed to be influenced by El Niño year — descended upon the region.

A similar thing occurred in the El Niño-influenced 1997-1998 winter season, which brought warm temperatures and more rain than snow. DCSki describe El Niño as “obliterating” that ski season, noting that it likely contributed to the original investors of Pennsylvania’s Whitetail Resort walking away from mounting debts and selling the resort for pennies on the dollar.

But, the reality is that it is still difficult to predict with granularity what impact a fairly-well understood phenomena like El Niño will have on Mid-Atlantic skiing.

Located in between the north and south, and bordered by an ocean to the east and mountains to the west, the Mid-Atlantic region is notoriously fickle when it comes to weather. While temperatures can dip down into the teens or below freezing, at many nearby ski resorts, winter temperatures regularly dance above and below the freezing line. And that line is critical: above freezing, it’s impossible to make snow, and any natural precipitation will arrive in the form of rain. Below the line, things can look much snowier.

In part due to these variable conditions, Mid-Atlantic resorts have invested heavily — to the tunes of many millions of dollars — in modern snowmaking equipment. This allows them to produce vast amounts of snow in the sometimes-narrow opportunities presented to them. A few days of sub-freezing temperatures is all it takes to begin opening slopes. And once bases are built up, they can weather a stretch of warm temperatures, or even a rainstorm or two.

Even so, a warm rain can be devastating to a ski slope. Although ski area operators will privately admit they would prefer cold temperatures over snow, as it allows them to make snow without roads becoming impassable for their guests, they still would prefer natural snow over rain.

And that is where the true wild card exists in the Mid-Atlantic. While winter precipitation in the Colorado Rockies almost always falls as snow, in the Mid-Atlantic region, with our temperature constantly flirting right at the freezing mark, a one-degree change can be the difference between a monster snowstorm and a base-flattening rain.

Higher-elevation resorts will always fare better. For example, Snowshoe Mountain Resort tops out at 4,848 feet above sea level, while Liberty Mountain Resort has a peak elevation of 1,190 feet. It’s almost always going to be a bit colder at Snowshoe than Liberty, which could be the difference between rain and snow.

Ultimately, despite the best efforts of Punxsutawney Phil, historic almanacs, and scientific instrument-wielding meteorologists, it’s simply not possible to predict with great accuracy what kind of ski season we have in store. It could all come down to the timing and temperature of a storm or two.

Alas, this is the life of the Mid-Atlantic skier. Which means we should appreciate and enjoy every day on the slopes, knowing that some years will be lean, while others will be epic.

About M. Scott Smith

M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.

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