Warm and dry in the forecast
Subpar winter expected for the Southwest

Fresh snow blankets the San Juans, near Silverton, earlier this fall. Despite appearances, forecasters are not optimistic for what the winter holds, at least the early months. Signs point to a warmer-than-average November and December with below-average snow. However, thigns could turn around come mid to late winter./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Black bears, the National Weather Service and the Old Farmer’s Almanac all have one thing in agreement – winter is just around the corner. Opening day at Purgatory is roughly a month away, and weather forecasters are reaching an emerging consensus. The winter of 2008-09 – and especially the early winter – is expected to be below average in terms of snowfall. Higher-than-average temperatures have also found their way into the long-term forecast.

Though weather prediction is a fuzzy art at best, a couple of strong indicators are pointing to a dry early winter. First, neither El Niño nor La Niña – the rival warm and cold siblings that dominate tropical Pacific Ocean currents – is scheduled to make an appearance this season. Second, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is expecting above-average temperatures for the entire western half of the continental United States. This “heat wave” is expected to divert winter storms and turn snowflakes into raindrops through the end of December.

Klaus Wolter, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a distinctly “pessimistic” forecast for southern Colorado through the close of 2008. Though neutral conditions are dominant over the tropical Pacific, a “La Niña footprint” remains, according to Wolter, and that footprint could mean warm and dry for the entire Southwest. That said, Wolter sees some signs of great white hope for Western Colorado as he looks beyond December and into the new year.

“Things are still in flux,” he said. “But it’s looking like it may not be quite as bad as the October through December forecast.”

Wolter expects a strenghening of La Niña for the late winter season, which stretches from January through March. While La Niña often brings dry and warm in the early winter, she tends to favor wet and cold through the late winter, Wolter said.

“It looks like we could be going right into a La Niña cycle, which is really not that bad when it hits mid-winter,” he said.

Wolter pointed to last winter as evidence that it might not be “that bad.”

The winter of 2007-08 also got off to a slow start and was marked by delayed ski area openings. However, the season eventually wound up being the snowiest La Niña on record, especially in the San Juan Mountains. Regardless, Wolter cautioned Durangoans to prepare for a “mixed message” this winter and said there is a possibilty of “at least adequate moisture in the mountains of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.”

A slightly more folksy forecast has arrived at a similar conclusion. The Old Farmers’ Almanac claims 80 to 85 percent accuracy for its respected weather forecasts, and forecaster “Caleb Weatherbee” makes his predictions two years in advance using a “top-secret” mathematical and astronomical formula. Prior to issuing his prognostication, Weatherbee takes sunspot activity, tidal action, the position of the planet and other factors into consideration. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts are based on statistical trends.

The 192-year-old publication’s 4 prediction is always a little gray for Durango, however. The line between the Almanac’s Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions lies somewhere between downtown Durango and Durango Mountain Resort, approximately 30 miles to the north.

For the Southwest region, Weatherbee is calling for warmer and drier than average through then end of 2008 with “maybe a snowstorm” in December. The winter will improve slightly in January with a couple large storms possible. However, “below average” is expected to dominate the precipitation picture through February and March.

Just north of Durango, Weatherbee has forecast cold and dry for the Rocky Mountain region, and the top-secret formula has revealed that the snowiest times of the year will be in mid-November, early and mid-December, mid- and late-January and late-February. In conclusion, Weatherbee wrote that Colorado snow “will be more than adequate for skiing” and should be followed by a cool, wet spring.

While anecdotal reports from many Durango old timers are calling for cold and dry this winter, some of the region’s original residents are taking a business-as-usual approach to the coming season. Southwest Colorado’s hefty black bear population typically goes into hibernation around Oct. 15 on an average winter, and the big sleep appears to be right on schedule this year, according to Bryan Peterson, director of Bear Smart Durango.

“Weather definitely plays a role in the timing,” he said. “But it’s also largely biological. Their bodies just start shutting down.”

In the lead up to the 100-day hibernation, bears feed for about 20 hours per day, consuming up to 30 pounds of food in a 24-hour period. Last year, Durango residents witnessed much of this activity firsthand when an early summer frost triggered a “massive food failure” and forced bruins into yards and garbage cans. This fall was picture-perfect from a bear’s perspective, according to Peterson.

“They had great natural food this year, especially when they needed it in the early fall,” he said. “Consequently, they’ve been out in the woods where they belong and in greater numbers than anticipated.”

Last weekend, Peterson stumbled upon bear sign at 11,000 feet, optimal altitude for black bear dens. The evidence told him that hibernation should be right on schedule for Southwest Colorado and could point to an average winter for Durango.

“That’s exactly where they should be right now,” he said. “All in all, this year was a really good picture of what healthy bear activity should look like.”

In the end, the bears, the Almanac and the forecasters could all be off base, according to Wolter. One thing about the weather is that it has been known to change when least expected.

“The truth is that it’s really a bit too early to pin this thing down,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist said in closing. •



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