Blame It on La Niña
Winter sport fans may want to blame La Niña for the High Country’s scarce snowfall so far this season. Those who prefer milder temperatures may want to thank her for a string of relatively balmy winter days.
But meteorologists have warned that the cold water current, which typically portends drier than normal conditions across the Southeastern United States, has taken up residence in the South Pacific Ocean and will likely stay put through the winter.
Las Niñas, which, despite their diminutive name, tend to have a big influence global weather patterns, occur on average every three to five years and last from nine to 12 months. They occur in consecutive years about half the time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The present La Niña conditions are following on the heels of similar conditions that were present from June 2010 to May 2011.
In back-to-back years, the phenomenon usually is weaker the second time around, but meteorologists are predicting that this year’s will be nearly as strong as last, which resulted in massive flooding when snow melt hit the Midwest, Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions.
Kris Mattarochia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va., said La Niña has been diverting northward much of the storm activity that would normally pass through the Northwestern North Carolina region, leaving the Southern Appalachians high and dry most of the season and resulting in record cold temperatures in Alaska.
About 2 inches of snow fell over the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday weekend, providing local ski resorts with ideal conditions for what is traditionally one of its biggest three-day weekends of the season. But the storm represented an exception, Mattarochia said, adding that the warming trend would return by the weekend of Jan. 21-22.
Local ski areas have been making do with man-made snow and some creative snow management, and Kim Jochl, marketing director at Sugar Mountain Resort, said they had a “great weekend.”
Unpredictable weather can be a bane to the winter sports industry, but Jochl said resort managers have developed a number of methods to compensate for fickle snow conditions.
Ideally, she said, snowmaking machines require freezing temperatures and low humidity, conditions that have been relatively rare this winter. To make up for the warmer climate, Jochl said Sugar Mountain takes advantage of the colder, dryer days and nights to make snow, stockpile it and then move it into place on selected slopes where it can be groomed for skiing.
Despite the warm winter, Sugar currently has five of its nine lifts operating and 16 of 20 slopes open for use. At Beech Mountain, there are four of seven lifts in operation and 12 of 15 slopes.
Appalachian Ski Mountain reports all six of its lifts online and all 12 of its slopes and terrain parks open.
Jochl said online technology has also helped remove a lot of the guesswork for skiers, who can see real-time conditions using web cams. She said the resort updates its website at minimum twice daily to keep potential visitors informed.
While ski resort operators have long provided telephone lines for accessing the day’s snow conditions, the Internet has expanded the options available to curious skiers.
“Because of technology, people are more aware of what’s happening up on the mountain,” Jochl said. “They’re not depending on just one source anymore. They can come to our website, there are blogs, webcams. Consumers are very savvy about these things.”