At the National Weather Service, meteorologist Kerry Jones like 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 La Niña weather pattern that’s on the weak side 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 term.
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.
But 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. “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.”
To his point, the seasonal outlook targets the traditional winter months of December, January and February. New Mexico often gets some of its biggest storms in March.
Around the ski industry, the hope is always for snow, but a couple of early season storms can make a huge difference.
“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 two years ago, the state’s storms came early and often, accumulating both news coverage and snow. New Mexico boasted nearly 1 million skier visits that year. Last winter, generally regarded as something of a dud, storms and news stories dried up. It cost the industry 250,000 skier visits.
The state’s resorts are constantly upgrading snowmaking equipment. Pajarito, Sipapu and Ski Santa Fe made the investments this year. Resorts are also spending money on the whole-day experience with activities like tubing to take some of the pressure off needing epic snowfall. Angel Fire expanded its night-skiing capabilities and plans to offer sunset lessons this season, too.
Taos Ski Valley, under a recent first-ever ownership change, has been revamping its base area and added a chairlift to Kachina Peak in the past couple of years.
“I think the top two things to highlight this year are the new children’s center and the whole new beginner hill which has been completely overhauled for beginners and kids,” says Claire Mylott, a Taos spokeswoman. “It uses terrain-based learning which is a new style and technology for teaching people to learn to ski.”
Brooks explains that designers across the industry are sculpting beginner hills to ease worries about how to stop or going too fast. It’s an important effort to get new bodies on the mountain. While skiers and boarders are spending more time on the slopes, Brooks says, the overall number of people in the sport has declined.
Snow or not, Brooks says a winter vacation to one of the state’s resorts is unlike any other. “Nowhere else in the world can you experience the cuisine and the art and the culture that people can in New Mexico.”
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