JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
By all accounts, it looks like winter this year in the West, including Southwest Colorado, is going to be warmer and perhaps drier than normal.
Arriving on the heels of a two-year drought, the forecast doesn’t bode well for farmers, skiers and river guides.
In its latest report that covers December through February, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the absence of El Niño conditions has thrown forecasters for a loop.
El Niño is the warming of water in the tropical Pacific Ocean that influences the path and the potency of storms in the United States. In the Southwest, the phenomenon brings more precipitation.
When the ocean in the South Pacific cools, La Niña conditions trigger the opposite effect. The Four Corners receives less precipitation.
El Niño, which usually peaks in December, was starting to form but stopped, Nolan Doesken, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said Tuesday. It’s in one of its rare neutral positions, he said.
As a result, NOAA maps available online show that there are equal chances that precipitation from December through March in Southwest Colorado will be normal, above-normal or below-normal.
As for temperatures in the region, NOAA maps predict December will have a 40 percent chance that temperatures will be above-average. The chances for above-average temperatures rise to 50 percent from December through February. Looking further out, the outlook for January through March is again a 40 percent chance of above-average temperatures.
Andy Corra at Four Corners River Sports said Wednesday that commercial rafting companies prefer a flow of 500 cubic feet a second.
The Animas River at Durango was flowing at 155 cfs on Wednesday.
“We had a good season this year because of our paddle boards, which can use flat water,” Corra said. “We can go lower than 500 cfs for commercial rafting, but we like a minimum of 500 over a few months to make a good season.”
Farmers and ranchers in La Plata and Archuleta counties face a grim future if the weather outlook proves accurate, Ronnie Posey, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Durango, said Tuesday.
“It will be devastating,” Posey said.
“The production this year doesn’t reflect the gravity of the situation,” Posey said. “There is no soil moisture to draw on next season.”
Posey’s two counties have a combined 50,000 crop acres, mainly in small grains and forage plants.
“If they start slow, they’re more susceptible to wind and pests like grasshoppers or mites,” Posey said. “The potential is extremely discouraging.”
Sven Brunso, marketing director at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, where the skiing season will open Friday, said Wednesday the resort has as 15-inch base of natural snow. It can continue its own snowmaking if necessary, he said.
In its mid-November report, NOAA said it’s likely – up to 90 percent so – that 2012 will be the warmest year on record in the Lower 48.
The global temperature is inching upward, too, NOAA said.
This year’s October was the fifth-warmest globally since records started being kept in 1880, NOAA said. The global temperature in the last 36 Octobers has been above the 20th century average.
Weather forecasters and water experts in New Mexico are pessimistic about the chances of a good snowpack this winter, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. The snow level currently is 50 percent of average for the date.
Ranchers are selling livestock for which they have no feed, orchardists are going out of business and agriculture-related operations are closing their doors, the story said.
Closer to home, the snow level in the Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel basins is 45 percent of average for this time of year.
Doesken heard a report Tuesday from Klaus Wolter, a University of Colorado climatologist.
Wolter, who sits on the State Water Availability Task Force, said the climate outlook is highly uncertain, but he is leaning in the direction of a dry winter, Doesken said.
“There’s no guarantee it’ll be a dry winter, but conditions certainly aren’t encouraging that it will be wet,” Doesken said.
Under any conditions, weather forecasting isn’t flat-out prediction, said Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Forecasters, including the agency’s Climate Prediction Center, deal with the chances – expressed in percentages – of a weather or a climate pattern occurring, Cuoco said.
“They’re the experts,” Cuoco said. “They do the best they can.”
In an attempt for certainty or simplification, the journalists and the public often overlook or omit this point, Cuoco said.
In his office in Grand Junction, forecasting for the Western Slope and the four easternmost counties in Utah stops at 10 days, Cuoco said.
“Even then, we try to use words like ‘possibility’ or ‘probability’ in our forecasts,” Cuoco said. “If we say ‘predict,’ we talk about percentages of a chance.”
Forecasters may use ‘expect’ in the first eight to 12 hours of an event, Cuoco said. Beyond that, they use ‘likely,’ he said.