Strong El Nino This Winter: What About Cascade Snow?

Now that it appears Fall 2015 is here to stay, let’s talk about the big story for the upcoming cool season…EL NINO.

I’m sure you’ve already heard it’s a strong one this year, but what does that mean for skiing/snowboarding/winter sports?  Read on…

First, let’s get two big issues out of the way:


Basically we hit bottom last winter, seeing the worst ski conditions in decades, and ANY winter should be better than that right?  That’s the working theory for this winter…

The phrase “EL NINO” often strikes fear into the hearts of Northwest skiers and is a somewhat deserved reputation.  El Nino is a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean.  All that extra heat causes changes to ocean and atmospheric circulations, affecting weather across the globe in different ways.  As of now, the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) is at a huge +2.3 deg C.  That puts this event right up with the “Super Ninos” in 1982-83 and 1997-1998.  This is a big one.  IF the current conditions were to continue for the next 5 months (a big IF), this could be the strongest on record since 1950.  But it isn’t for now and at least one model, the CFS, implies this event will peak in the next month or two.


Regardless, this is a “Strong” El Nino and it’s here to stay for this coming cool season.  In these winters, we tend to see warmer and drier weather than average across the northern half of the Pacific Northwest.  As you’ve also likely heard, California in many of these winters gets slammed by lots of stormy/wet weather.  Taking all moderate/strong El Nino winters since 1950, here is the average precipitation anomaly from November-February…pretty dry:


And temperature anomaly for the same years, warmer than normal:




So let’s take a look at Cascade snowfall in the 23 El Nino winters we have seen since 1950 at Government Camp, where average yearly accumulation is 270″ (click for full-size)


That’s not good news.  A few thoughts:


There is a downward trend as well through the period, although 23 data points is a pretty small sample!  Do you notice the events in the 1960s seemed to do just fine for snowfall, but post-1970 or so things have gone downhill at bit?  It may that a very gradual warmup in the Cascades has produced more warm storms (rain vs. snow) at that elevation.  Notice that I am focusing on the 4,000′ elevation.  That’s because monthly snowfall data is very hard to find.  Records are also taken at Timberline and Mt. Hood Meadows, but aren’t generally publicly available.

Mt. Hood Meadows issued a nice media release earlier this summer that included total winter snowfall at that 5,400′ elevation.  So I plugged in those numbers to see how things vary vs. Gov’t Camp.  Those records only go back to 1982:


A few thoughts:

  1. Snow accumulation increases dramatically as you go up in elevation.  Looks like that extra 1,500′ or so almost always doubles total yearly snow.  Much of that is in “shoulder seasons” of October/November and mid-March/April/May, I suppose when it’s too warm down at Gov’t Camp.
  2. El Ninos are more reasonable at a higher elevation.  That’s because we tend to be warmer in El Nino winters with warmer storms
  3. At higher elevations a few El Nino winters have actually been snowier than normal.  Another reason to not totally freak out.  You will likely need to spend more time this coming winter on the higher parts of your favorite resort.
  4. 1982-83 is a weird one, Gov’t Camp was well below average yet Meadows was above.  That MAY be because the best snow was in the spring when it was getting too warm down below.  Not sure since I don’t see the monthly data.

That brings up a good point…total snowfall for the season doesn’t matter as much as what happens during the important winter months of December-February when most of us ski/snowboard.  Here are the Gov’t Camp numbers for just that 3 month period during El Nino winters:



  1. Snow during the important December-February period is below normal during every El Nino since 1970.  Some of those years are way below normal as well.
  2. The moderate/strong El Nino years don’t tend to be the “disaster” years (except for 1991-1992)


I think I can dispel one myth that I’ve been passing along over the years.  That El Nino winters often start with a “bang”…great snowfall right away in late October/November that then peters out as we get into late winter.  Apparently that’s not true.  Out of the last 10 moderate/strong El Ninos, 5 saw lots of snow by Thanksgiving, 5 did not.  Doesn’t seem like a very clear signal to me.

You may notice I didn’t mention the warm “blob” of water in the Eastern Pacific or the very warm PDO right now.  Those are both long stories for another time, but I don’t believe either one helps the snow situation for this coming winter.  I didn’t see any reason to pile that onto this posting!

I’ll take a look at what El Nino means in the lowlands later this week.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen


65 Responses to Strong El Nino This Winter: What About Cascade Snow?

  1. MasterNate says:

    Geez. I planned my day around the forecasted cool/rainy weather and it turns out once again to disappoint. Oh well, very comfortable beautiful day. The rain and cold will be here soon enough.

  2. WEATHERDAN says:

    Where is the rain? Currently it is partly sunny and 65. I hope we get a good dump of rain so I don’t have to water my flowers. Then a really nice weekend is on tap. Next week looks dry too. Although Clark county might see some light rain on Monday. Some leaves are starting to change color. I wonder is it because of the drought or because of the drought. Or maybe a little of both. Really a shame about those flash floods in Utah. Those TRW,s can really lay down a ton of rain quickly. Peace.

    • Joshua says:

      I like the opposite weather of you, but I see nothing wrong with calling it like you see it. What a bust today has turned out to be. I think we will get some decent rain late tonight/early tomorrow (.25″ maybe), but not the soaking we so desperately need.

    • MasterNate says:

      Dan, I hope you keep posting as I enjoy your posts. I’m pretty sure there are no “blog rules” about loving hot dry weather. I have heard that due to climate change, Salem is the new Arizona so you wont need to move.

    • pappoose in scappoose says:

      Carry on bravely, Dan.
      Nothing but warm/hot/dry weather to talk about at times. Always gonna be folks that don’t like it for whatever reason. Just as many that do.

  3. lmh says:

    I noticed that some of those years we actually had some snow and cold so we might get something. I also think that the following winter might be really cold because the pendelum always swings the other direction and the sun activity is greatly reducing.

  4. Doug says:

    Re, the WEATHERDAN . . . issue. Like several other posters, I have to wonder why anyone so enamored of relentlessly warm to hot and perpetually dry weather would choose to live in the Pacific NW and, further, why he would continue to do the broken record thing with rapturous (and continual) one-note postings that extol weather more suited to arid locations to an audience all but panting for a return to more typical/normal NW weather. After a bit, you begin to think that the intent is to antagonize. After a bit, you begin to think: Okay, we get it. Enough.


    • WEATHERDAN says:

      Doug this is a weather blog. I am discussing the weather, ok. As for why I choose to live here I have several reasons. .1 I was born here and have lived here all my life. 2. Most of my family lives here. 3. My employment is here. 4. I like the beautiful scenery and friendly people. I like our year round climate. Having said that I do confess to having a love for warm weather. And Doug I do not make the weather only forecast it. So if you want a snowstorm this Winter and I think it will rain instead I will say that. Not to hurt anyone but because it is the truth. We are all adults and deserve the truth. I will not apologize for liking warm weather. However I understand we need the rain and I have said so many times. If I keep talking about the warm and dry weather it is because we have had a surfeit of it all Summer. Also Doug we have had many hot Summers in the past so that is not that unusual for our area. What is unusual however is having three very hot Summers in a row. Since this is a blog about weather I talk about weather. If you are annoyed Doug that is not my intent. My intent is to talk about a subject that I find endlessly fascinating–weather. So Doug now you know. How you feel about it is up to you. Peace.

  5. schmit44 says:

    9/15/2015 Oregon (All) Temperature Summary

    High:73 at DW1597 Troy(1612 ft)
    Low: 55 at BOARD(290 ft)

    High:37 at Rim(7050 ft)
    Low: 20 at Horse Ridge (US (4160 ft )

    Largest Diurnal Change: 34 degrees
    Horse Ridge (US (54/20 ) (4160 ft )

    Heaviest Rainfall:
    0.77″ at MOON HILL(6100ft)
    0.70″ at SILVIES(6990ft)
    0.70″ at FISH CREEK(7660ft)
    0.65″ at P HILL(4860ft)
    0.47″ at RIDDLE MTN.(6352ft)
    0.41″ at GRASSY MOUNTAIN(4560ft)
    0.41″ at DANNER(4225ft)
    0.40″ at SUMMIT(6113ft)
    0.32″ at OWYHEE RIDGE(4400ft)

  6. Jesse-Stevenson says:

    Just my two cents, but the comments about WEATHERDAN could not be more spot on.


  7. paulbeugene says:

    Ski Tahoe!

    Am betting there will be some decent ski days at ‘Hood this winter, just not many.

    Don’t know how places like Ski Bowl, Hoodoo are going to make it.

  8. Boydo3 N. Albany says:

    My 8-ball says, “THE FUTURE IS UNCERTAIN”.

  9. Boring Oregon says:

    Last nights low was 42°. Coldest night for awhile, probably since April or even March.

  10. High Desert Mat says:

    Man, I hope we have no rain and hot temps from here to the Sahara. A lot of sand and some cool iguanas to top it off with maybe a tenth of an inch of rain in next ten months. Man, wouldn’t that be paradise everyone? No fishing, no skiing, water restrictions, and wishcasting. Sweet, I’m down. Peace

    • High Desert Mat says:

      Wait I’m sorry, did I say cool iguanas? I meant warm iguanas. Peace

    • High Desert Mat says:

      I’m sorry did I say cool iguanas? I meant warm iguanas. Peace

    • High Desert Mat says:

      Oops, double post, its just really hot in here and I’m starting to get delirious from this blazing desert heat we live in now permanently. Tomorrows highs should be above normal and the rest of winter, but if they’re not I wont post daily anymore. Peace

    • Boring Oregon says:

      You sir have just dumped a gallon of gas on the already raging fire.

    • Jason Hougak says:

      Dan shouldn’t dish out things if he cannot take them. Like I’ve stated before the blog is fun. We state weather facts and knowledge while enjoying each other’s personality and weather preference.
      Sometimes things can become a broken record and that’s when you are going to expect people to start throwing in their two cent opinions and humor. Goes too far when somebody judges one persons soul over weather posts!

    • “They make it a desolation and call it ‘peace’.”

  11. Jason Hougak says:

    Well Dan I see a cheap shot down below and it was below the belt when you think I’ve got something wrong with my soul… seriously kinda scary that you’d post something like that when that should never be said. You don’t even know me.

  12. chiefWright (Marquam) says:

    I appreciate the depth, as usual, but why do I feel your post has mostly to do with how well the cascades will fare for winter sports? Is that really the priority here?

    How about for next years watershed, especially given this most epic dry water year? How far off are we from serious water shortage?

    I apologize if it sounds like I’m whining. Perhaps because I just needed to drill a new well since my existing 400′ well has dropped from 6 GPM to less than 1 GPM.

    As much as I like skiing, I’m kinda more interested in water availability for the ecosystem, not shredding pretty powder this winter.

    • Jason Hougak says:

      There are storage tanks for that. Most of the time a storage tank will provide adequate water for low yield wells. Sometimes a well just needs to be cleaned out due to sediment plugging the bottom of the well. The current drought has hit our aquifers very hard however and a new well is sometimes the only other option. Just be careful, because the well could be more productive than you think. Have a proper flow test with the static water level taken and drawdown during the test at timed intervals. If the well pump runs dry the flow then must be reduced. If the water level then starts to recover then that let’s you know the well is producing more than your pulling out. Our company tests from the wellhead with the entire rest of the system off line through a flow meter where we monitor gpm and psi along with the static level by a well sounder. Many company’s will just run a hose from a faucet and never check your water level in the well, this is about as poor of test as you can do. It is cheap and not accurate. Sorry to hear about your situation. Hopefully you got more water from the new well.
      Like your concern as it is my area of expertise, but I’m also a skier and Mark does a great job keeping Oregons winter sports activists informed.

    • Boring Oregon says:

      Well chief, usually there is correlation between snowpack and winter sport conditions. If the snowpack is good that typically means winter sports are going good as well.

    • chiefWright (Marquam) says:

      Jason, I appreciate the comments. The well yield was measured in the way you describe by a local and reputable well driller. And I have a controller that throttles the pump yield down to well yield. And the well pumps into a 1500 gallon cistern. And I’ve got dataloggers on both well and cistern pumps. And I’m vigilant to detect and stop leaks.

      We also mainly use greywater for irrigation, but even so, we had to cut back on watering in July when the cistern regularly got too low to provide water.

      Indeed, Boring, snowpack affects watershed and winter sports together– but not always directly.

      Maybe this El Nino delivers lots of snow at Meadows, but Ski Bowl stays shut again. In this case there’d be great shredding to be had, but the watershed will suffer since there’s way more area where snow should be at Ski Bowl elevation than Meadows elevation.

      How about some discussion about the chances of Detroit Lake not reaching full pool next year?

  13. EXCELLENT POST. Curious what the El Nino Lowlands Outlook will entail: Arctic blasts? PDX total snowfall? Nov-Jan temps vs Feb-Mar temps?

    I have a strong feeling that if we get any kind of cold weather action this season, it will be over long before February 1.

  14. Mark, I noticed in the graphs that you included winter 1976-77 as an El Nino winter. However, I recall getting an explanation once from a Dr. Howard Freeland(Institute of Oceanic Studies in Sydney,BC) who said it didn’t quite qualify as an E.N, and was termed “a warm event.”.That winter was a mild dry one, as I remember. The following winter (1977-78) he said had the El Nino, and that one was a lot cooler with more snow where I live. So, had you heard about this contention before? Or, has it definetly been established now that 1976-77 had an El nino?

  15. Jason Hougak says:

    Great post Mark. Who knows we may have a 60’s style El Niño? 1st year I’ll need to purchase a pass for my daughter, $149.00 at Timberline. Last season was nice cuz she’s has been free. Still have 2 more free seasons for my son. Remember El Niño 97-98 turned into monster La Niña 98-99 giving Timberline over a 300″ Base, that’s snow on the ground no annual snowfall. Had a fun summer camping, rock climbing, biking, fishing, I’m ready for skiing and snowboarding!

    • WEATHERDAN says:

      Wishcasting Jason?

    • High Desert Mat says:

      How is that wishcasting? He said who knows. It could happen and maybe not. You sure don’t seem like a true Oregonian Dan. You say you’ve lived here your whole life but act as if we live in Phoenix? Crazy if you ask me. We live in a mostly wet and cool climate. Once in awhile we have warm periods with record heat and then we have cool periods with record cold. Whatever. The weather does what it does. My life will go on but for someone who wishcasts heat ALL the time when salmon are dying, the forests are burning, and the water is running out is somewhat of a narcissist. Good luck with keeping temps in 90’s here from here on out buddy. Welcome to the real world of the northwest now. Stay warm!!!!

  16. leer` Geddy says:

    Looks like Washington is gonna be in worst shape then Oregon as storms head further south and missing us.

  17. WEATHERDAN says:

    Our wet Wednesday keeps getting drier. NWS now has forecast for SLE at less than .10 on Wednesday and .10 to .25 Wednesday night. So perhaps as little as .20 out of this system. Then warming up to around 80 this weekend. After a brief downturn on Monday warmer and drier weather returns for Tuesday. I’m loving it. Peace.

    • Jason Hougak says:

      Geez Dan give it a rest

    • Jason Hougak says:

      Your name should change to HotweatherDan because that’s all the weather you seem to want no matter how bad our situation is. Makes me want to puke!

    • Chris s says:

      Good grief Dan, I really cannot understand why you live around here. You root for weather that is wayyyyyy beyond the normal climate for around here, and always have a warm bias to boot with your forecasts… Which when they bust you tend to post way less for those few days. You sure it won’t be like 85 or so this weekend??? Lol…

    • WEATHERDAN says:

      You are not worth me getting kicked off this blog. But you can imagine my thoughts I’m sure. What do you think. I control the weather? I comment on what the weather is most likely to be or is forecast to be by others and what do you, you blame me for the weather.. I have never and never will call for damaging weather. Hey Mark predicted bad weather for Hood to Coast race at Seaside. Why don’t you blame him for predicting the bad weather? Oh one more thing Mr. Hougak how many times have some wanted an epic snowstorm or an ice storm or a windstorm? Do you childishly insult them with juvenile posts because they want weather that could cause damage and injuries to people? No you do not. And if you need to puke it probably comes from all the nasty thoughts you seem to have inside of you. I will pray for your soul. Peace.

    • WEATHERDAN says:

      Jason Hougak says:
      June 25, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      Hey Mark
      How about some ⚡️⚡️⚡️storms!

      Jason Hougak says:  
      June 25, 2015 at 10:54 pm   
      If it’s gonna be hot we should at least get some weather action that involves thunder/ lightning/ down pouring rains… sun and heat just is not exciting weather. Looking forward to winter weather action here.

      —————————————————————————— Hey Jason why would you call for lightning when we had such high fire danger at the end of June? How is that glass house thing going? Weatherdan.

    • Farmer Ted says:

      I like your posts Weatherdan, I just think that other fella is kind of out there, if you know what I mean…..

    • Boring Oregon says:

      Ladies and gentlemen. Lets all just calm down and let Dan like hot weather. It’s really not a big deal he just likes warmer weather, what’s wrong with that? And lets face it guys, he’s actually pretty darn accurate with his forecasting. The only reason you’re mad at him is because he’s saying the truth and you guys just can’t handle the truth because it’s not what you want to hear.

    • Jason Hougak says:

      Dan thunderstorms bring rain too

    • High Desert Mat says:


    • …i think some of you need instruction in sandbox etiquette…

  18. Chris s says:

    Looks like 97-98 was slightly above avg for Dec thru Feb???? At least it’s above the blue line as far as I can tell. One can have hope I think that at least there will be a ski season this year.

    • Mark Nelsen says:

      1997 was a classic “ridgy” El Nino. Gov’t Camp was terrible in November/December. We had lots of east wind and sunny days. Then 83″ in January, normal (42″) February and that was it…back to mainly rain March and beyond at that elevation. So a good chunk of January/February that winter was okay.

  19. gidrons says:

    So last year was a Nino? I thought it fizzled out to a warm neutral.

    • Mark Nelsen says:

      Last year was a very weak El Nino winter. There is a link up in the posting (ONI) where you can check all the past years.

    • What, Mark? I thought you included 2014-15 as “moderate to strong Nino” according to the national temp/precip maps above!!!

      I hope omitting the 2014-15 season from the sample doesn’t twist around the temp stats too much for DLS airport….

    • W7ENK says:

      SSTs in the ENSO 3.4 Region didn’t officially meet El Niño criteria until 2015 August week 3, which means SSTs in ENSO 3.4 Region didn’t cross above the +0.5C threshold and hold there until 2015 March week 3. So no, though while periodically reaching above the threshold before dipping back below again a handful of times, last winter was not officially a “weak El Niño winter”, it hovered in warm–neutral territory. I think the “Warm Blob” right off our coastline did more to screw us out of last winter than anything going on in the Western Equatorial Pacific.

  20. slim1357 says:

    I ignored the signs the last two years and wasted my money. Strong El Nino, positive PDO. It probably won’t be as bad as last year but I can’t afford another gamble.

  21. billowen123 says:

    HELLO MARK, I appreciate your very perceptive and accurate assessment of how El Nino affects the Pacific Northwest. I hope you can connect with some of your colleagues on the East Coast so that we all have a better idea of how El Nino affects the United States. Your data along with others’ data goes a long way towards helping us understand Global Warming and how best to combat it.

    You’re doing a great job by being so open and perceptive in your comments. I hope others will take notice and be equally perceptive in theirs.

    Thank You Again,


  22. Paul D says:

    That is a perfect example of why I frequent this blog. Thanks for the info Mark!

  23. W7ENK says:

    If you thought last winter’s snowpack was dismal, just you wait…

    And as for Meadows, you also need to take into account that they have a known habit of inflating their numbers. They may measure slightly higher up than Timberline, but they’re also on the “dry side” of the summit, so technically — and in my experience — they usually break even, if not even run a little behind Timberline during the peak winter months. It’s almost funny that they think no one notices, but if you’re familiar with both resorts, it’s quite obvious.

  24. chezeury says:

    At least it’s looking cooler. Near as I can tell, it’s wetter in CA, which they need, drier here but not as bad as it’s been. Less snow since it stays warmer. I remember those El Niño seasons he
    Refers to: 1982 and 1998 really wet and warmer than usual (that was the year the basement was wet in your room down there). It definitely feels like fall here now, warm days, cool nights. THANK THE ALL MERCIFUL GODS!!!!! (Genuflecting at the altar of rain gods)

    Sent from my iPad


    • W7ENK says:

      It may be wetter in Southern California, but Northern California still can’t get a single drop of rain to (literally) save anyone’s life…

  25. WEATHERDAN says:

    Today is the 16th consecutive dry day since that storm in late August. Our lawns are still brown down here in Salem as far as I can tell. Still looking good for a good dump of maybe .33 on Wednesday. Almost feels like time to get the sweaters out for Autumn but I will wait for October. Very good post Mark, lots of good info. Peace.

  26. I agree- it’s a great post, and it shows how complex and uncertain the situation is. Like most others, I’m hoping for more snow this winter, but I’m not expecting much more.

  27. Steven James says:

    Good post, thanks Mark.

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