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Van Loon Sport

How to predict a snowy winter

Rory Hackett


It’s a conversation I found myself having frequently this past autumn; “I’m leaving town - Heading to Europe, or Japan, or anywhere else. Didn’t you hear? It’s another El Nino year. They’re calling for another warm, wet winter. I’m out of here.”

Long before the first snowflake of the season has graced us with its presence, every skier and snowboarder with a laptop seems to have become a renowned climatologist.  ‘The Farmer’s Almanac’ becomes the sacred text of the skier as the snow-obsessed search desperately for some hint about their upcoming winter. Will we find ourselves drowning in ecstasy on endless powder days or spend more time honing our grass-skiing skills?

It would be remiss of us not to mention the revered and the infamous couple of kids from Spain, La Niña and El Niño.  The ski community has a long-established narrative which seems to suggest that La Niña years tend to be good ones, while El Niño years are bad for the winter sports enthusiast. The reality is, of course, infinitely more complex.

These weather patterns are observable trends that affect different parts of the world in completely different ways. In its simplest form, La Niña is determined by cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific ocean that impact global weather patterns. Conversely, El Nino is the result of warmer sea temperatures that tend to result in wetter, warmer winters in North America.

While it’s indisputable that trends in weather patterns are both observed and scientifically supported, the factors affecting a ski resort's season are so numerous that the concept of long-term weather prediction becomes a bit of a dark art.

As a resident of Whistler, I have experienced two dreadful seasons in as many years. If we’d been able to adjust the temperature by a degree or two, altering the freezing level by even a few hundred metres, the 2013/14 season might have gone down in history as one of the great ones, rather than one of the dampest. 

Here in Whistler, we’ve had a phenomenal start to the season, a bottomless week and a tasty-looking storm cycle on the way. After the winter that never happened, we couldn’t be more grateful. Does this mean anything for the rest of the season? Absolutely not.  It does, however, go to show that beyond a few weeks, we really have no idea what we’re going to get.

While it’s impossible for a layman to make concrete assertions about meteorological phenomena that often leave professionals scratching their heads, I can make a separate point. There is a certain beauty in the uncertain, a romantic element that makes winter sports that much more appealing. We have all fallen in love with skiing and snowboarding because of those days when the stars align and the conditions are, to coin a ski-movie cliché, ‘all-time.’

Every now and then, you stumble upon a day when you can’t peel the grin away from your ears, the kind of day that makes a hundred bad ones worth it. I was lucky enough to have one of these recently, and I guarantee it wouldn’t have felt as special if I knew exactly when it was coming months in advance. While none of us would say no to endless powder days, that feeling of getting lucky with Mother Nature will never get old.

Winters are uncertain in the long-term, but that’s OK. Predictable is boring anyway.


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