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Don Paul: Winter weather outlook good for skiers, bad for snowmobilers

Ski conditions in Western New York appear to be decent to very good as of the end of this week according to website I Ski NY.

Hilly terrain has received some significant to heavy lake-effect accumulation, and it’s actually gotten cold enough for some fresh powder. Moreover, as of this writing, conditions are excellent for additional snowmaking, an expensive venture for ski resorts.

Snowmobiling appears to be a different story. Trail websites, assuming they are current and up to date, seem to show nothing but closed trails. Of course, trails are entirely dependent on natural snow, and the coverage has been spotty. The Erie County Federation of Snowmobile Clubs has a site on which you can click on individual clubs and trails, but nothing appears open.

The same is true for the Chautauqua Lake Club and, as you would expect, the Northern Erie County club.

As for skiing, the outlook is better for resorts with good snowmaking equipment than those without. We start with snow cover over much of the northern hemisphere which remains near average for this time of January.

This snow cover is sufficient for most ski resorts in our region, even though it comes up short for snowmobilers. The question then becomes projecting the chances for keeping much of what we’ve got and, where possible, adding to it with snowmaking. Most of the time, snowmaking requires an air temperature of 32 degrees or lower, ideally 28 degrees or lower. Drier air increases the volume of snow which can be made, by increasing evaporational cooling of the air as snow crystals fall through the dry air. Ski resorts look for lower dewpoints to enhance the costly process of running the equipment. If weather forecasts and extended outlooks indicate a sharp, persistent warming trend coming up in the next couple of days, or a heavy rainfall, it becomes very problematic whether it’s economical to run the equipment when a resort knows it’s going to lose much of its base regardless. No such persistent warming or heavy rain is in sight.

As for natural snow, some of this past week’s snowfall could be seen coming some days in advance, as could the well-below average temperatures. I haven’t driven to ski country, but I’d lay odds the machinery  is chugging away as I type. The current Buffalo temperature is 19 degrees, with a dewpoint of 7 degrees … ideal for snowmaking to reinforce the bases.

What’s coming in terms of temperatures? In the near term, we’ll see daytime highs moving back up to the upper 20s and low 30s on the slopes by early next week, but nighttime lows will still support fair to very good snowmaking production. Later in the week, some moderation may return. For example, here is the American GFS projected near surface temperature for next Friday at 7 p.m.

By Sunday, Jan. 20, the GFS is absolutely frigid at 1 p.m.

The Canadian GEM is very cold, but less extreme (and more believable, in my opinion).

The good news here for skiers is we are no longer seeing a warm period with readings approaching or exceeding 40 degrees for a week or so, as had been showing up in models 10-15 days ago. The slopes can easily withstand the minor moderation in current model runs and be replenished with some snowmaking many if not most nights.

As for the much more difficult problem of predicting new snowfall in the extended range, here are some raw numbers — to be taken with many grains of salt, being careful to keep that salt off the slopes. The GFS total snow out to Jan. 21 would be helpful, but the model hasn’t gone hog wild.

The GEM is a little more heavy-handed.

The newer experimental version of the GFS (which will replace the current GFS later in the winter if the federal government shutdown ever ends) is more conservative.

In current model runs, most of the model snow falls next weekend - Jan. 19 and 20 – as a storm system goes by to our south. Of course, it remains to be seen whether enough new snow would fall then to open up some snowmobile trails.

In the longer term, the experimental 46-day version of the European ECMWF shows plenty of total snowfall over Western New York by later in February. Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of a 46-day precipitation product. I’m just “putting it out there.”

In terms of keeping what snow we get, things are looking up for recreational winter sports fans. It will be easy to keep ice skating rinks operating most of the time. Extended range models still are optimistic for colder, more below average temperatures arriving and becoming persistent later in the month and in February, as per this GFS ensemble.

Upper atmospheric blocking high pressure near Greenland and over northwest North America favors a lobe of the polar vortex dropping down closer in east central Canada, which would deliver more polar air to the Great Lakes, Midwest and the East.

Even the frequently warm-biased American CFS v2 model has us in the deep freeze at the end of January and the start of February. This is the model which uniquely predicted unseasonable warmth for last November when you may recall we were much below normal in temperatures. It may finally be catching up.

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