In the Wirth Park offices of the Loppet Foundation — stewards of the city’s annual midwinter ski fest — the staff is checking the weather forecasts “more than most anyone else on the planet,” said operations director Mike Erickson. “At different times I’ve had six weather apps on my phone, hoping one of them will have good news.”
So far, the news is not good. At least not for cross-country skiers.
What climatologists are calling the “Godzilla of all El Niños” is coming.
The federal Climate Prediction Center is claiming a 95 percent certainty of El Niño conditions through the spring. Some forecasters say it could be the most intense El Niño ever recorded. For the Upper Midwest, El Niño winters tend to be drier and milder, essentially turning Minnesota into southern Illinois for a season.
El Niño is that occasional meteorological event in which higher than usual sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean bump the jet stream farther north, scrambling the world’s weather in wildly varying and dramatic ways. In a typical El Niño winter, Minnesota winters might be drier, while California is usually wetter, raising hopes that this winter will refill its reservoirs. Central Europe could freeze solid.
Climatologists’ forecasts are complicated this year because in addition to a Godzilla-sized El Niño, they are wrestling with what they are calling the Blob — a mass of warm water in the northern Pacific that could intensify El Niño’s impact. Could “Pacific decadal oscillation” (the Blob’s technical name) become a household term like polar vortex?
“No question this could be one of the big ones,” said Peter Boulay, a Minnesota state climatologist. “Not only is it coming, it’s already here.”
In the previous big El Niño, in the winter of 1997-98, Minnesota’s winter was significantly warmer than usual (9.8 degrees above normal) and moderately drier (with nearly 10 fewer inches of snow than normal). The 1957-58 El Niño produced the driest winter on record in Minnesota, 33 fewer inches of snow.
Given those numbers, a general sense of doom has fallen over the region’s skiers and snowmobilers.
Local ski hills and resorts are prominently featuring their snow-making machines on their Facebook pages. The Wall Street Journal reported that retailers are shipping winter coats back to wholesalers. Municipal embarrassment looms in February when Minneapolis greets the international Winter Cycling Congress, whose members will arrive from around the world looking for snow.
Safer, healthier winters
But the weight of academic research suggests that Minnesota — and the country as a whole — is a net winner in an El Niño winter. A winner, that is, if you factor out the emotional and cultural consequences of a Norse people stranded for four months in southern Illinois. Consider:
In the wake of the 1997-98 El Niño, a report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that:
• Fewer people died. More than 1,000 people usually die in weather-related incidents in a typical winter, but in 1997-98 just 189 Americans died because of weather. That’s an estimated 850 lives saved.
• The nation saved $6.7 billion in heating costs.
• Less salt on roads also saved money and minimized environmental impacts.
• Home sales soared (up $5.6 billion from the year before) and the construction industry posted a bump in employment and income, and there were “healthy gains” in stock prices of those companies.
• “Many people changed their normal winter behavior patterns,” the report noted. “Thousands went out of doors more, millions went shopping, many altered their types of recreation, and most everyone enjoyed better health than in normal winters.”
Up in the air
Despite the likelihood that an El Niño winter is ahead, Boulay isn’t writing off winter yet.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “Anything.”
Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s winter outlook included this caution: “It is important to remember that each El Niño episode is different,” considering “antecedent conditions or the Arctic Oscillation,” and the as yet unknown impact of the “large warm pool of water off the Pacific Northwest Coast” (aka the Blob).
The forecast noted that “in the Midwest region, El Niño is not known to impact [the] potential for ice storms or blizzards.”
In addition, a Department of Natural Resources review of the past five “strong to very strong El Niño episodes” for the Twin Cities found a wide range of weather.
The 1957-58 El Niño winter was the driest since 1895, but the 1982-83 El Niño was the second wettest. (Read: Lots of snow.) And while three of the past five big El Niño winters have been warm, temperatures in two of the winters (1965-66 and 1972-73) were normal.
In general, Boulay said, El Niños are better predictors of temperatures than moisture.
Folks at skinnyski.com concur. With the motto “narrow skis, wide coverage,” the New Brighton-based website covers trails, races, gear and lodging for cross-country skiing in the Upper Midwest. It also closely tracks snowfall.
Contributor Mark Lahtinen said that since 1899, El Niño winters have produced only about 8 fewer inches of snow and 10 fewer days of skiing. So skiing and snowmobiling are by no means out of the picture.
“We could end up just fine,” said the Loppet’s Erickson. “I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.”
Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.