Lake Tahoe weather: 2016-17 winter outlook offers more questions than answers
When it comes to predicting long-term forecasts for the 2016-17 winter season in Tahoe, the answer closely resembles the classic non-committal response after shaking a Magic 8 Ball.
Ask again later.
With Tahoe resorts preparing for opening days and many dusting off their skis and snowboards, the only certainty for Tahoe’s winter is uncertainty.
Even this late into the fall, Opensnow.com forecaster Bryan Allegretto doesn’t have a firm grip on what things will look like a month from now — much less later in the season.
“Everything is still kind of borderline right now,” Allegretto said. “I don’t think anyone can give you a heartfelt ‘a lot of snow’ or ‘not a lot of snow’ forecast right now. Everything is teetering, and there’s nothing we can do but wait and see.”
Coming off a winter of near-average snowfall in 2015-16 as the result of a strong El Niño, the outlook is not so clear for Tahoe as this fall winds down.
Many factors could come into play when it comes to snowfall totals, and Allegretto only feels confident saying that the region could receive between 85 percent and 92 percent of its average — and even that is based solely on historical data.
In short, he says, “It’s going to be interesting.”
DISSECTING THE PATTERNS
This winter, it all starts with La Niña, which comes from cold water on the surface of the Pacific Ocean — leading to the opposite effects of El Niño. Thus far, however, that weather phenomenon has been weak with nothing in the wind patterns currently strengthening it.
If this winter brings a weak La Niña, it has consistently in the past led to snowfall totals between 89 and 92 percent of the average in Tahoe.
If it weakens further, then patterns would be ENSO neutral — meaning no effects of La Niña and the potential impact of other weather factors.
“It’s such a wildcard year,” Allegretto said.
In both a weak La Niña and ENSO neutral winter, short-term forecasts are the only ones that can be made with true accuracy. That is because of the potential impacts of weak air circulation in the Arctic, which pushes cold air south.
Allegretto said that cold air could set up a blocking pattern that could mean long stretches of cold and snowy or warm and dry weather.
These patterns have the potential to bring half of the precipitation for winter in a two-week span, or be equally dry for that same amount of time — and then flip.
The main thing forecasters are keeping an eye on with winter on the horizon are ocean temperatures along the Pacific coast. The water turned cold during a stormy October, but could warm up again — colder water means a chance of wetter conditions during winter.
What does all this mean? Not a whole lot yet — but Allegretto said to err on the side of a drier winter in Tahoe, and hold out hope for a snowy one.
SKI AREAS OPENING?
On a positive note in the short-term, regional weather patterns shifted to colder and snowier this week.
According to the National Weather Service in Reno, a cold front will move into the region Tuesday night, with snow levels expected to hit valley floors by Wednesday morning.
Two to 5 inches of snow is forecast for above 6,500 feet for the Sierra Nevada, with up to 2 inches possible below 6,500 feet from the Tahoe Basin northward of the Oregon border.
While not much in terms of coverage, the small storm this week coupled with low temperatures in the teens in Truckee and low-20s at the lake starting Wednesday should allow regional ski resorts to fire up snowmaking equipment in hopes of opening for the 2016-17 season.
As of Tuesday, Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood downhill resorts all were still scheduled to open with limited terrain on Friday, Nov. 18.
Further, Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe announced this week it also plans to open on Nov. 18 — almost 3 weeks later than its original intended opening date of Oct. 31.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, meanwhile, had initially eyed between Nov. 11-18, conditions permitting, to open for the season. As of last week, the resorts announced they plan to open on Nov. 23.
Other resorts are looking to the first couple weeks of December to begin running lifts.
Anthony Gentile is sports editor for the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Sierra Sun Managing Editor Kevin MacMillan contributed to this report.