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Winter outlook: Good, but not great

Meteorologists predict drier, warmer-than-normal conditions
by: Garth Guibord, Connor Slingerland, 3, of Portland, forms a snowball from the scant snow outside Timberline Lodge on Saturday, Oct. 21, as the lodge awaits the winter season.

There was a lot of name-calling at the Oregon chapter of the American Meteorological Society's annual winter outlook meeting at OMSI on Friday, Oct. 20.

This year's forecast winter weather pattern was called 'boring,' a 'wannabe El Niño' and an 'El Niñito' - which means the little, little boy - while last year's winter was fondly described by Oregon State Climatologist George Taylor as 'exciting.'

Last year, the panel of five meteorologists couldn't agree on much when predicting the season, but this year everyone was in accord: expect a slightly drier, slighter warmer than normal winter. They contend that the Pacific Ocean is showing signs of a weak 'El Niño' phenomenon, in which warmer ocean temperatures make for a mild winter in the Pacific Northwest.

El Niño is what caused Mount Hood's ski areas to open late, close several times mid-season and lose significant profits during the 2004-05 season. Tourist-dependent businesses from Sandy to Government Camp struggled to stay afloat during the snow drought.

'It's not going to look exactly like it did two winters ago,' said Pete Parsons, KOIN consulting meteorologist, who claims his forecast is 'most accurate' during El Niño years. 'It was a different signal then. It's so significant a difference in weather, although both are El Niños. That will be good news for the ski season.'

Taylor, who successfully predicted a banner snow year on the mountain last year, said that despite the warmer conditions, there will be an average snowpack on Mount Hood this winter.

'I think it's going to be an OK year for skiing,' he said. 'It's going to be good, but not great.'

Sandy and mountain-area businesses struggled during the dry 2004-05 winter season and surged during the long, profitable snow year in 2005-06. Despite predictions of a mild El Niño event this winter, ski resort operators and other industry workers say they're not afraid.

Dave Livermore, owner of Meadowlark Ski Shop in Sandy, is optimistically finishing up an addition to his store.

'A full El Niño would obviously be more serious than this,' Livermore said. 'It's just going to be a little milder than normal this winter. At this point, we're not too concerned about it.'

While he isn't expecting another banner season like last year, Livermore says he's expecting a 'reasonable year.' Livermore plans to open next Wednesday, Nov. 1, to allow winter sports enthusiasts to gear up before the season, which typically begins mid-month.

'We're all optimists,' Livermore said. 'That's the way it's gotta be. How it happens, it happens, but we're excited.'

Executives at Mt. Hood Meadows aren't flinching, either.

'Even during El Niño conditions we still get snowfall on Mount Hood,' said Dave Tragethon, the resort's marketing director. 'The temperature is not really that much of a factor; having precipitation makes for good snowpack.'

Tragethon said that the ski area's records indicate that El Niño years usually denote an earlier than normal winter season opening.

'We usually get some early November snowfalls out of El Niño conditions, and we start the season with a fairly good snowpack,' Tragethon said.

A mild winter is also good news, he says, because 'the majority of our skiers actually enjoy skiing in fair weather. If we can go for longer stretches with sunshine and a good snowpack, we can attract more people than with continuous snowy weather.'

All in all, Meadows' General Manager Dave Riley says he is confident in Mount Hood's snow-producing power.

'Typically, we get so much more snow on Mount Hood than most regions around the country,' he said. 'There are very few places where you measure your snow depth in feet as opposed to inches.'

Mt. Hood Meadows is aiming for a Nov. 17 opening, but a good snowstorm could push that date up.

When the resorts open sometime next month, employees of the ski industry will be ready and excited.

Although Marilyn Peterson, President of Mountain Quail Business Services - which operates the Mount Hood Information Center in Welches - joins the ski-industry professionals' belief that this winter will be better than the dismal 2004-05 season, she said the mountain community needs to work together to make the region less financially connected to the weather.

'We are a region that is really dependent on tourism,' Peterson said. 'So when the snow isn't here and the resorts aren't bustling, there's a trickle-down effect that hits the whole region' from Sandy to Government Camp.

'Many, many of our guests from the Portland/Vancouver area obviously thought of us as one industry in the winter, when we believe we have so much more to offer on a year-round basis,' she said.

The answer, she says, is the Villages at Mt. Hood Tourism Marketing Alliance, which is starting to refocus clients to other activities in the region.

'I think we're starting to become really savvy at not exclusively focusing on marketing snow in the winter,' Peterson said.

But in the meantime, the optimistic business people on the mountain cross their fingers and wait.

'In the 21st century, we've had some awfully good years,' Riley said. 'We're looking forward to another one. But we're ready for anything.'


COMPARING WINTERS

The meteorologists at the annual winter outlook conference arrived at their predictions by analyzing previous winters. Here are some of the comparisons, which often contradict one another:

George Taylor

1951-52: Three major windstorms

2003-04: Cold November, major snow, freezing rain (remember the 'winter blast'?) in January

Pete Parsons

1899-1900: One of the mildest winters on record, no snowfall in Portland area.

1976-77: East wind event, freezing rain in January


PREDICTIONS

George Miller, former head of the Portland office of the National Weather Service

Temperatures and precipitation will be slightly below normal in November and December. From January to mid March, temperatures and precipitation will rise above normal levels. Miller believes the snowpack on Mount Hood will be average or slightly below average. He said there's only a 'mild' threat of snow in the suburban areas, which would occur in early December. Miller says there's a risk of flooding in January or early February.

George Taylor, Oregon State Climatologist

He says that this year's weather pattern is an El Niñito - a weak El Niño. Taylor predicts slightly above average temperatures and precipitation, with no 'large-scale arctic outbreaks.' He believes the snowpack will either be average, or slightly above average.

Kyle Dittmer, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission

Although he predicted a 'doozy' of a winter for 2006-07 last year, he recalibrated his forecast, saying the winter will 'more like a whimper.' He said that like last year's 'wannbe La Niña' event, this year's El Niño will be weak and will 'flash and peak quickly.' By the end of winter, he believes conditions will return to Oregon norms, but in the meantime there will be a dry November, slightly cooler conditions in December, a warm January, a dry February and a 'normal' rest of the year. Dittmer predicts one snow event in the Portland area, most likely in December.

Steve Todd, Meteorologist-in-charge of the Portland office of the National Weather Service

Todd predicts that overall there will be less precipitation and higher average temperatures this winter than normal, due to the weak El Niño. He said he expects above normal precipitation in late spring.

Pete Parsons, KOIN News 6 consulting meteorologist

In November, temperatures will be hotter by about one degree. It will be dry, with no snow. Parsons says December will be normal in terms of temperature, but dry with no snow. January will be 'slightly warm and a little bit on the wet side,' Parsons said, but there still won't be snow. February will see normal temperatures, dry conditions, and yes, no snow.