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The dry spell of La Niña

Brief by Central Staff

Weather – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Central Colorado’s two ski areas — Monarch and Ski Cooper — were scheduled to open the weekend before Thanksgiving. But Mother Nature didn’t coöperate, and so the lifts didn’t start running until Dec. 11, three weeks later.

Most ski areas in Colorado were hurting for lack of snow, although the big resorts along Interstate 70 have snow-making and could thus open more or less on schedule.

The natural-snow exception was Cuchara, down by the Spanish Peaks, which got five feet of snow in a Dec. 3-4 storm.

That storm also dumped up to two feet on parts of Custer County and forced the closure of the Hardscrabble Canyon Road until the plows could clear it.

But that’s about as far north as it got — a broom sufficed to clear Salida sidewalks — and in general, it’s been unseasonably dry and warm in Central Colorado and the San Luis Valley.

This has happened before. After snow-challenged winters in 1976-77 and 1980-81, we theorized that it was related to presidential elections. Perhaps all the hot air emitted by the candidates affected Colorado weather.

However, that hypothesis didn’t hold up — snow was fairly normal in the late months of 1984, ’88, ’92, and ’96, when there was certainly no shortage of hot air.

Climatologists are blaming La Niña this time around. El Niño is a Pacific current that in some years hits the coast of Peru around Christmas Day (the birthday of “the child,” or in Spanish, el niño). The current is a product of a big pool of water in the Pacific, which also affects North American weather.

El Niño winters are generally wetter and harder than most — the last one, two years ago, wasn’t that bad in the mountains, but California got hammered pretty hard with severe coastal storms and flooding.

El Niño’s sister is La Niña, which often follows an El Niño winter. La Niña years feature warm water in the Pacific near Japan, and that translates into a persistent high-pressure zone in the western United States.

Thus moisture-bearing storms tend to go north of the high-pressure zone, into Canada. Occasional snowstorms visit the Rockies, but they don’t have much moisture, and they’re followed by a week or two of clear weather.

The climatologists say this pattern typically holds until about Feb. 15, followed by a wet spring and a dry summer.

If that’s the case this year, then summer water supplies should be solid, thanks to big storms in March and April, and summer recreation should be more pleasant without those thunderstorms. But until Feb. 15, snowfall will be only half of normal in most of the Colorado high country.

Or so they say. After our election-year hypothesis collapsed, we’re not making any predictions.

We did enjoy the comment of Awedis Banojakedjian, who moved from warm Los Angeles to frosty Leadville to open a grocery store in late 1999: “And this warm weather, if this is strange for winter, then it can go on being strange.”