What could ‘Godzilla’ El Niño mean for Lake Tahoe? | SierraSun.com

What could ‘Godzilla’ El Niño mean for Lake Tahoe?

Sebastian Foltz
The setting sun lights up the sky and Lake Tahoe last week. Will heavy snowfall light up the winter sky this year? That remains to be seen.
Courtesy Keith Thomas |

LAKE TAHOE — Fall is in the air and the El Niño winter hype machine has begun. Will this be the end of four down snow years in the Tahoe Basin?

With some forecasters calling for the potential for the biggest El Niño event on record, OpenSnow.com founder/forecaster Joel Gratz and Tahoe-area forecaster Bryan Allegretto last week both said they couldn’t say for sure, but there are some positive indicators for substantial precipitation; and the next month may do a lot to clear the weather picture.

“Anyone who tells you they know is lying,” Allegretto said of the hype so far. “We’ll know better as we get into December. As much as we want to be excited, we’re cautiously optimistic.”

As for Godzilla — the term that has been embraced by some for this particular El Niño’s potential— Gratz said, “It’s not anything that’s official and it’s probably not even that relevant.”

He said the term was used by one meteorologist describing the potential and has since been embraced by media and the ski resort community.

“We’re still many months away from knowing if this is the strongest,” he explained.


READ MORE: Strengthening El Niño impacts on Lake Tahoe region are too fickle to predict, meteorologists said in July.


What is certain at this point is that it will at least be a strong El Niño, because central Pacific Ocean waters are already 2.5 degrees above average.

Temperatures would have to reach over 3 degrees above average to be the strongest on record, Allegretto said. But the big questions is how other factors will influence the weather.

Only twice in the last 50 years — 1982 and 1997 — have El Niño water conditions been similar in the central Pacific, and they both yielded strong winters for the West. But other factors in the current pattern are different.

“I don’t think we’ve seen it like this before,” said Allegretto, referring to another warm water mass in the eastern Pacific that could potentially redirect moisture away from the Tahoe Basin and the Sierra Nevada.

“If they looked the same I’d be running around and saying absolutely,” he added of the potential to predict an above-average winter. “Where we sit right now, I would say Tahoe is on the border.”

Their current forecasting model predicts Southern California getting above-average precipitation, but Northern California is less certain.

Allegretto further explained that the warm water mass in the eastern Pacific has been cooling in recent weeks, which could help El Niño weather patterns to deliver more moisture to the Sierra Nevada.

“The faster the eastern Pacific cools, the better our weather pattern. I feel better each week as I’ve been watching,” he said. “Week after week it’s starting to look more like those (two) years.”

Whether that precipitation would fall as rain or snow also remains a variable.

“El Niño tips the odds, but it’s far from a sure thing,” Gratz said of the potential. “Tahoe always flirts with the rain-snow line.”

Allegretto added, “I’m more confident that it’s going to rain a lot than it’s going to snow a lot,” at this point. But the potential for substantial snow remains.

Heavy winter snowfall will also depend on where individual storms go as much as the overall weather pattern, Gratz said.

“Over half the snowfall usually comes from 10-20 percent of the storms,” he explained of patterns in El Niño years.

So Tahoe remains a question mark, but Allegretto said there’s at least a strong chance of an average winter, which alone would be a welcome change from recent years.

Less than 300 inches of snow fell on Donner Pass each of the last three winters. That’s below 75 percent of average, Allegretto said.

“It’s looking OK. It’s looking decent. We don’t want to go all in yet,” he explained. “We’re starting to lean towards a better-than-average chance. We’ll know better as we get into December.”

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