Snow Season: Why Long Range Forecasts ‘Stink’

If you ski, right around this time of year you start paying attention to the weather. We talked with OpenSnow founder Joel Gratz to learn more about the science of snow forecasting.

long range snow forecast opensnow founder interview

The meteorologists at the website OpenSnow dedicate themselves to predicting snowfall for skiers. They specialize by region, providing forecasts for specific ski areas all winter long.

But should you get excited for a big snow season just yet?

We talked with OpenSnow founder Joel Gratz to learn a little more about what to expect this winter. His message? Forecasters can predict some general trends, but overall long-range forecasts are more guideline than rule.

Snowfall: How Far Can You Predict?

long range snow forecast opensnow

GJ: You’ve said that long-range weather forecasts “stink.” That said, how’s the winter going to be in North America?

Gratz: That’s exactly what everybody says. “I know you can’t forecast long range, but what’s the long-range forecast?” Any three- to six-month outlook is usually rather inaccurate, and even if it is accurate, it can’t tell you what months or weeks will bring the most snow.

How far in advance do you start to gain confidence in forecasts?

About seven to ten days out we have decent confidence in the weather pattern. Will it be dry? Is a storm coming? Will it be warm? Super cold? Then by three to five days out, we have a reasonable idea of the timing of a storm and which locations might get the most snow. By about two to three days out, we have decent confidence in the “when and where” of finding the deepest pow.

Around this time of year, a lot of publications cover the Old Farmer’s Almanac and other super long-range forecasts. Are any of these worth noting or based on sound science?

Most are based on sound science. The problem is that the science does not consistently produce accurate forecasts. It’s fun to look at these forecasts, and to track their accuracy, but I wouldn’t plan trips based only on them.

For example, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is calling for a fairly snowy, cold season in the Rocky Mountains. You think they’re onto something?

There are a few other models that are pointing toward good snowfall for this area, plus La Niña is developing, which can often bring good snow to this area. The signs are pointing in the right direction, but again, remember that three- to six-month outlooks are usually not accurate most of the time.

If La Nina does develop, what are the major impacts?

If La Nina develops, on average, this means more snow and colder temperatures for the northwest, below average snow for the southwest, and areas like Tahoe, Utah, and Colorado are “in between” the northwest and southwest. Essentially, La Nina stacks the odds toward better snow as you go north. But odds aren’t a guarantee, and to find powder, you need to time each individual storm.

For those planning ski trips during the coming winter, what’s the best way to increase the odds of finding pow?

The best odds of skiing powder anywhere in the world is Japan in January and February. Other than that, the best way to increase your odds is to plan your trip seven to 10 days in advance so you can head toward powder. If you can’t do these things, then plan a loose trip, flying to a centrally-located airport, renting a car, and driving at least a few hours to find the pow.

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Your website, OpenSnow, seems to have really grown over the last few years with many forecasters for specific regions. What do you do differently that has fueled your growth?

Local forecasters sharing their knowledge of, and passion for, powder. This passion is the key. Powder is emotional, and we feed that emotional energy.

Can we expect anything new for the upcoming season?

We are working to completely redesign the website, mobile apps, and add a ton of new maps and data.

OK, say you were gambling. When and where in the next winter will get the best, biggest powder dump of the season?

If I were gambling, I would do everything in my power to increase my odds for powder. So I’d live in Japan or British Columbia for January and February.

Now, how good would your odds be of getting that right?

If I lived in either of those places for two months? The odds would be nearly 100 percent!

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Managing Editor Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in Denver, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.

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