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A thousand-inch winter? Really?

August 27, 2011

Summer is over and a big winter could be ahead.

There.

It’s been said.

Darker mornings, cooler nights; a subtle shift in the light. A slight tinge of gold, even in the greenest trees and plants. School in session, pre-dawn runs before work, woodpiles sprouting on every deck.

Orion rising. Scorpius setting. Summer is over.

And far too soon for most locals, battered by a long, deep-snowed winter, a cold spring, a summer that only began six short weeks ago.

To make it all worse, the rumor mill about the coming winter is enough to make you break out in chills.
“A thousand inch winter, that’s what I’m hearing from a friend of mine who worked at Scripps,” said June Lake local Doug Nidever.

“An early winter, a cold winter, beginning in October,” predicted Mammoth business owner Tom Cage.

“Weather Service warns of potential La Nina return,” the Dow Jones Newswire service trumpets, writing on Aug. 8. “Another round of extreme weather patterns that devastated production of iron, coal and agricultural crops … could be poised to return…”

“A Double-Dip? Mounting Evidence Suggests La Nina Will Return This Winter,” said the latest Southwest Climate Outlook report.

And so it goes. It defies the imagination, this idea of a “thousand-inch winter.” Another 20 feet on top of last winter’s 60-plus feet of snow on Mammoth Mountain?

Inconceivable — especially with as much as 10 feet still carpeting the high country (snow that will not melt this year at all).

It defies the imagination to go through another nine-month winter. Even diehard local skiers and backcountry fanatics confess to wishing summer was just beginning, not ending this week. It’s kind of a low-level dread lying over the town these days, interrupted only by brand new ski and snowboard fans slowly filling the college dorms and residences.

So what is expected to happen this winter?

That depends on whom you ask.

First the big, big, snow rumor.

“Everyone is saying I’m predicting a thousand-inch winter,” said Howard Sheckter, Mammoth’s local weather guru. “I’m not. It’s too early.”

“We don’t have any of our scientists that are predicting a thousand inch winter for the Sierra that I could find,” said Rob Monroe, a spokesman with Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “We believe it’s still too soon to predict the winter with any certainty.”

“There’s no correlation with lots of snow and La Nina,” said Alex Hoon, a meteorologist with the Reno-based National Weather Service. “It’s kind of a shot in the dark as to which way it will go, any given year.”

“The normal Sierra projection for such an event (the return of La Nina) is a dry Southwest and a wet Pacific Northwest, said Maury Roos, the state Department of Water Resources chief hydrologist. 

“The same kind of pattern holds for the Sierra, with the south end being somewhat drier than average and the central and northern Sierra being near normal. The latest National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center discussion is more guarded but says the winter is likely to be neutral to La Nina in nature — with a fair amount of uncertainty.

“The person you heard about may be talking total snowfall during the winter, which may average about 400 inches, in which case I am guessing the 1,000 inches would be about twice average. That would mean two back-to-back extremely wet years — possible, but not likely.”

On the other hand, many of the weather experts the MT talked to did say that the coming winter was more likely to start earlier than later. And Sheckter added that it also is shaping up to be colder.

“La Nina winters are not necessarily typically wet winters for the Sierra,” he said, echoing Roos statement about the fact that La Nina lends itself to a drier Southwest and a wetter Pacific Northwest. But because the Sierra is right in the middle of the division between those two regions, it’s doubly hard to predict which way a La Nina winter could go.

“But there are indications that it could be colder than last winter, and yes, earlier,” he said.

What made last winter so dramatic for the Sierra was a persistent and long-lasting weather pattern that forced the Pacific Northwest storms (that are typical) year as far south as Southern California, an extremely unusual occurrence. Such an event is statistically unlikely to occur two winters in a row, the meteorologists agree.

So that leaves things pretty much as unclear as they can get for winter-weary locals. Maybe it’s time to start counting the width of the black bands on the wooly caterpillars.

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