To snow or not to snow: Long-term outlook for Tahoe’s 2016-17 winter offers more questions than answers |

To snow or not to snow: Long-term outlook for Tahoe’s 2016-17 winter offers more questions than answers

by Anthony Gentile
A cross-country skier takes in Lake Tahoe from high above Incline Village. Even in late fall, long-term predictions have been difficult to make when it comes to forecasting the upcoming winter in Tahoe.
Courtesy Will Hart / Tahoe South |

When it comes to predicting long-term forecasts for the 2016-17 winter season in Tahoe, the answer closely resembles the classic non-committal response after shaking a Magic 8 Ball.

Ask again later.

With Tahoe resorts preparing for opening day while locals and visitors alike dust off their skis and snowboards, the only certainty for Tahoe’s winter is uncertainty. Even this late into the fall, forecaster Bryan Allegretto doesn’t have a firm grip on what things will look like a month from now — much less later in the season.

“Everything is still kind of borderline right now,” Allegretto said. “I don’t think anyone can give you a heartfelt ‘a lot of snow’ or ‘not a lot of snow’ forecast right now. Everything is teetering, and there’s nothing we can do but wait and see.”

“It’s such a wildcard year.”Bryan forecaster, on Tahoe’s upcoming winter

Coming off a winter of near-average snowfall in 2015-16 as the result of a strong El Niño, the outlook is not so clear for Tahoe as this fall winds down. Many factors could come into play when it comes to snowfall totals, and Allegretto only feels confident saying that the region could receive between 85 and 92 percent of its average — and even that is based solely on historical data.

In short, he says, “It’s going to be interesting.”

This winter it all starts with La Niña, which comes from cold water on the surface of the Pacific Ocean — leading to the opposite effects of El Niño. Thus far, however, that weather phenomenon has been weak with nothing in the wind patterns currently strengthening it.

If this winter brings a weak La Niña, it has consistently in the past led to snowfall totals between 89 and 92 percent of the average in Tahoe. If it weakens further, then patterns would be ENSO neutral — meaning no effects of La Niña and the potential impact of other weather factors.

“It’s such a wildcard year,” Allegretto said.

In both a weak La Niña and ENSO neutral winter, short-term forecasts are the only ones that can be made with true accuracy. That is because of the potential impacts of weak air circulation in the Arctic, which pushes cold air south.

Allegretto said the cold air could set up a blocking pattern that could mean long stretches of cold and snowy or warm and dry weather. These patterns have the potential to bring half of the precipitation for winter in a two-week span, or be equally dry for that same amount of time — and then flip.

The main thing forecasters are keeping an eye on with winter on the horizon are ocean temperatures along the Pacific coast. The water turned cold during a stormy October, but could warm up again — colder water means a chance of wetter conditions during winter.

What does all this mean? Not a whole lot yet — but Allegretto said to err on the side of a drier winter in Tahoe, and hold out hope for a snowy one.

On a positive note in the short-term, Allegretto indicated in his latest post on that colder air Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 16-17, would lead to solid conditions for snowmaking. Those operations are currently underway at both Heavenly Mountain Resort and Northstar California Resort, which have opening day scheduled for Nov. 23.