Worst Start To Ski Season in 30+ Years: What’s Ahead?

December 15, 2014

I never thought we’d see 2 consecutive Christmas Breaks with little to no skiing in Oregon…but it appears that may be about to happen, at least to start the two-week period.  It’s heartbreaking looking at the maps/models and knowing so many people’s paychecks, stores, & life dreams are wrapped up in what happens over the next three weeks.  I know last winter must have been a huge financial hit, especially for Oregon’s smaller ski areas and I fear what a repeat could do.  Hang in there!

This is what we have right now; about 25% of normal snowpack (for this date) on the ground in the Cascades.  It’s especially bad in the Mt. Hood area with only 8% of normal!  Dec15_SnowWaterBad

The Mt. Hood Test Site, at 5,400′ within the Timberline Ski Area, has been in operation since around 1980.  There has never been less than 2.7″ Snow Water Equivalent (water in the snowpack if you melt it all down).  That low was in 2002. Right now that location has 6″ of snow on the ground and 2.5″ SWE which means it’s the lowest ever recorded on that sensor on this date.

It’s probably safe to say this is the worst snowpack at this location in mid-December since the great 1976-’77 drought year.  It’s really bad…at this point in time.  No ski area other than Mt. Bachelor has more than 11″ of snow on the ground.  Bachelor got lucky because they are higher up (start at 6,000′) and some of the warmer storms gave them snow when others had rain.

Even last year (which was bad through January) was slightly better.  Here’s a quote from my blog posting last year on this date: “Timberline is reporting 27″ of snow, which is the least of any December 15th since 1989!  Most of you skiers probably remember the winter of 2004-2005…really bad.  That year was a skiing disaster with Skibowl only able to open for a few weeks and I think even Meadows was closed at times mid-winter.  That year we had 47″ on the ground in mid-December at Timberline.  BUT, there were 3 pineapple express events the following couple of months that kept destroying the fresh snow.  We’ll hope that’s not the case this time around.”

To borrow a bit more from last year, with last year itself added in:

This is one of just 5 times that Timberline has seen 30″ or less on the ground on December 15th.  So what happened in the other 5 years?  The following includes snow depth on the 15th and the results:

27″,   25″+ by January 1st, 1 two foot storm in mid-January otherwise drought continued through first week of February. Big snow finally returned after first week of February


30″,   80″+ by January 1st, but then not a very good ski season, poor conditions

15″,   18″ by January 1st, then 105″ by February 1st, massive snowstorms commenced in mid-January

30″,   41″ by January 1st, 85″ by February 1st, ski season limped along…not too bad

2″,  8″  by January 1st,   10″ on February 1st.  Worst drought and ski season (or no skiing) in years.  Hasn’t happened since, hopefully won’t occur again!

So you can see what we’ve had so far is no guarantee of what will come for the rest of the winter.  Although only 2 of the 5 really bad years recovered to a reasonable ski season.


Why do I think there isn’t much hope starting this weekend, the start of the Christmas Break?  Because we have weak systems the rest of this week that will produce less than 1 foot of snow and then…another round of warm rain at the ski areas.  First, the WRF-GFS model’s snow forecast from now through Friday morning…just 2-5″ on Mt. Hood:


Then the following three days look how much precipitation is forecast…2-5″ liquid.  If it were snow it would be 20-50″ snow depth!


But the snow forecast tells the story from Friday through Monday morning:


Little to nothing.  That’s because a strong warm front arrives Saturday along with several days of warm weather and freezing levels around 7,000-8,000′.  It’ll all be rain from later Saturday through Monday.  What little snow we get this week would wash away and we’d have little or no snow on the ground at the Mt. Hood Ski Resorts by Tuesday the 23rd.  Wow…it doesn’t get any worse than this.  To top it off, the pattern looks relatively dry after that point with upper-level ridging along the West Coast.

To sum it up, I don’t see a pattern or sequence of weather events that could get a bunch of lifts open at ski areas for the next 7-10 days.

Of course I could be wrong.   But all models, through at least the next 7 days, agree with the general scenario above.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen


December 15, 2014

Geez, can’t believe I posted 4 DAY OLD MAPS in the previous post!  Here are the real ECMWF monthly maps for the next 4 weeks:





Those first 3 weeks definitely have the ridging well to the west…could be a very cold pattern for us from around Christmas onward.  Drier than what the previous maps showed.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

Monthly ECMWF Maps

December 15, 2014

Just saw the weekly 500mb height maps from last night’s monthly run of the ECMWF.  Ridging wants to hang around the West Coast much of the 2nd half of December.  Here is the first week showing the troughs impacting us at times.  They are weak and splitty, evidenced by the highest anomaly to our south.  This is bad for skiing, no significant snow (2 feet or more) on the way:


Then Christmas Week a change back to the November pattern we saw with ridging hanging right over us or trying to shift back a little to the west.  We turn very dry, although the ECMWF today has warm rain in the Cascades as the ridging is getting established Sunday through Tuesday next week:


It’s interesting to note the ensemble average seemed to be farther west yesterday, putting us on the edge of “backdoor” arctic air invasion.  Even the 12z ensemble average that just came out midday looks like that.  Slightly under two weeks from now:


Back to the monthly run…Week 3:


A bit more north with the ridging, this could let some systems through underneath it…into mainly California.  We saw this in November a bit.  Mild West Coast and cold eastern USA.

And the final week which takes us almost to mid January…looks a classic “El Nino” setup again with a strong jet into California and the ridge has moved farther north.  This could be wet at times over us, similar to what we’ve seen early in December.


Remember this is just one run, although it is many different ensembles averaged together too.  The main message I take away from this is the ECMWF shows no cool/snowy westerly-flow pattern for the Cascades in at least the next 2-3 weeks.  That was totally absent last winter as well.  At least until the floodgates opened the 2nd half of February!

I’ll probably blog more on the pitiful (and possibly record-setting) state of the snowpack in the Cascades late today.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen