by Kaitlyn Kinshella

If you live or ski in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, chances are that this year you have had the following conversation with someone:

“Wow! We are getting amazing snow so far this year.”

“I know! It is so much better than last year.”

“Yeah, that’s because it is supposed to be an El Niño year.”

“What is El Niño, anyway?”

“All I know is that it brings us crazy amounts of snow. You know our Champagne Powder™? Well, you can thank El Niño for that!”

“What? No way! That’s awesome!

When places get heavy winters with buckets of snow (such as Steamboat often does), people will proclaim that it must be an “El Niño year”. Most people who enjoy snow-related activities have heard of El Niño storms but don’t know where they come from or what they are. Over the years living in Colorado, I have heard many things when asking “what is El Niño, exactly?” Some say that it has to do with changing winds, others reply that it’s all about the ocean temperatures. For all I knew, El Niño could be a snow fairy that flies over certain regions and grants them with copious amounts of powder. So, I decided to find out for myself what the scoop is with these murmurings of an El Niño winter for 2018-19 and exactly what it means for our snowpack and future summer activities in Steamboat.

Barn Fireworks Steamboat ResortWhat is El Niño?

To put it in layman's terms, a weather phenomenon called El Niño occurs when the temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean rise for an extended period of time. This change in temperature in one area of the ocean causes a domino effect. It changes the atmosphere, which has a dramatic effect on weather across the world. It can cause monsoons and desert blooms all the way to horrible fishing seasons. Although El Niño’s reach is endless, affecting every season and region, ski bums are most fascinated with its impact on the United States in the winter months. Due to the mystical nature circling around El Niño, some believe that it means snow and cold temperatures for the entirety of the United States. However, this is not the case. Generally, southern regions of the United States will see a drop in temperatures and an increase in rain and snow storms. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the north, which will tend to see fewer storms during an El Niño year.

Where does the name El Niño come from?

While Spanish settlers were beginning to call Peru home, they would every so often write about storms that would bring their land to life with greenery. In their eyes, these times of flourishing were the ultimate gift, because it would instigate abundance, even in areas that were normally dusty and without water. Because these downpours would normally occur around Christmastime, the Spaniards decided to call them El Niño, named after the baby Jesus. The association of El Niño with Christmas resonates with many skiers, who are often crossing their fingers for an amazing season of snow around December.

Has El Niño arrived?

In December, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) said that although El Niño had not officially arrived, there is a 90% chance that it will rear its head this winter, and a 60% chance that it could emerge from hibernation in the spring. Interestingly, the water in the Pacific is already warmer than average, which is the main indicator of El Niño. However, because the atmosphere has not responded to these changing temperatures, meteorologists cannot officially declare an El Niño year.

steamboat resort

Should El Niño affect your future ski trips in Colorado?

This year, predictions are stating that the Colorado snowpack should be average to above average. Despite the fact that El Niño hasn’t yet made an official appearance, the snowpack is currently above average, with forecasters seeing the best start to the snowpack in five years and recent storms causing the percentage to shoot above 100%. For example, resorts like Steamboat have been seeing big dumps lately, putting their snowpack at 112% in comparison to the last 30 years (and adding to the Champagne Powder™ on an almost daily basis!). Currently, many resorts are thanking the snow gods, since last year was dry as a bone due to La Niña. The truth is that, whether El Niño decides to show his face or not, as long as the snow trends continue your chances of having a brilliant ski day are high no matter where you go in Colorado. What’s more, our current conditions will feel like heaven compared to last year’s.