At the National Weather Service, meteorologist Kerry Jones likes to say that climate trains the boxer, but weather throws the punches. It's important to pay attention to trends, but the moment you think you have a climate pattern pegged, there's a decent chance Mother Nature is about to land a nasty hook to your jaw.
So it goes with La Niña. As New Mexico readies itself for what appears to be a weak La Niña weather pattern for December, January and February, Jones tells SFR there are some things that are more likely than others.
Warmth, for example.
"That's been the trend for the past two or three decades," he says from his Albuquerque office. "These are not short-term fluctuations."
The last three weak La Niñas have been warmer for the winter months. And before that, in 2000-2001, it was just barely cooler than average. The last really chilly La Niña was during Ronald Reagan's first time.
So weather watchers feel more comfortable with that prediction, though there's no guarantee of a balmy winter. In the February 2011 weak La Niña, a record cold snap in the state shattered pipes and locked up natural gas lines, in some cases for days.
But again, Jones and his colleagues get paid to notice trends. While most people remember the month as almost unbearably cold, Jones recalls the near-record highs a couple weeks later. It was so warm, in fact, that the month as a whole was just a shade cooler than average.
When it comes to precipitation, it's really anyone's guess.
In years past, a weak to moderate La Niña pattern has meant drier years for Santa Fe—and New Mexico in general—but it's also produced some above-average winters. La Niña isn't a drought, and a below-average outlook doesn't mean no winter.
"We don't want that to be translated to 'Oh my gosh, we're not going to have winter storms,'" Jones cautions. "That's not what that says."
The National Weather Service targets the traditional winter months with its seasonal outlooks, but New Mexico often gets some of its biggest storms in March. And this La Niña pattern has already shown signs of mitigating, which means it could be disappearing just as the late-winter storms start to brew.
Again, there are no guarantees, but all of this gets more certain the further south you go in New Mexico. Jones says the southern half of the state can more easily count on La Niña being warmer and drier than the average New Mexican winter.
Even in a winter that might be subpar overall, a couple of good storms early can make a huge difference to the ski industry.
"There's no question that the numbers decrease when we don't have natural snow," says Ski New Mexico's George Brooks. In the relatively good winter of 2015-16, when the state's storms came early and often, accumulating both news coverage and snow, the state boasted nearly 1 million skier visits. Last winter, generally regarded as something of a dud, storms and news stories dried up and the industry saw 250,000 fewer skier visits.
He's constantly getting asked what kind of snow we'll have this winter. As a guy who has seen La Niña giveth snow and taketh it away, he's not into predicting what she'll do this time.
"It's easier for me to say that I've given up on it," he chuckles. "But my job is to change perception. And that perception is that if we don't have snow or it's light or we haven't had some in a few weeks, that it's not going to be good skiing."
Most ski areas in the state have been investing in snowmaking equipment for years. While we might have a warmer winter or a drier one, Brooks says New Mexico's ski areas are often high enough to ensure that there will be good weather for man-made snow. The slopes skied and ridden by the majority of skiers and boarders have at least some man-made snow on them.
Almost anyone can get tuckered before the day is out if they go hard enough, too. Which means they can enjoy what Brooks says is a growing trend in the ski industry: Many resorts are focusing on customer experience and working to make a trip to the mountain enjoyable whether skiers and boarders are on the snow or off it, enjoying a nice aprés-ski beverage.
Makes it a little easier to take that weather punch.