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Could El Nino Bring More Snow? Or could "The Blob" Block It?

Judy Fahys/KUER
No one can really predict what's on the horizon for Utah snow this winter. Here Utah State University soil scientists take measure of last spring's measly snowpack.

Fall colors in Utah’s mountains are getting people thinking about prospects for a snowy winter. Weather forecasters also have been thinking about it, especially the role the strong El Nino might play and how “the Blob” could factor in.

Jim Steenburgh, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist and author of Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, is a skier who relishes snowy days. But, as a scientist, he’s wary of all the chatter about a Godzilla El Nino dropping monster powder on the Wasatch Mountains. Steenburgh says the El Nino weather pattern doesn’t necessarily bring big snow, even though that’s how things turned out in 1983 and 1997.

“I think we’ve got to be careful about assuming it’s going to be big,” Steenburgh says. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be big. I don’t rule that out. I just say, right now, the odds aren’t weighted strongly -- from the climatological odds -- of having a big winter versus a dry winter.”

California is banking on rain from what some people are calling a "Super El Nino," and other parts of the West can count on shifting weather patterns, too. But northern Utah just doesn’t experience predictable patterns from El Nino.

Meanwhile, forecasters have been watching “the Blob,” a warm patch in the Pacific off Washington’s coast that’s blamed for storm-blocking high pressure. Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, says this El Nino is so strong, it could clobber the Blob.

“If you were going to wager,” he says, “there’s a higher probability that you will see wetter conditions in northern Utah this winter due to the strong El Nino, as a record-breaker.”

Other factors like a four-year dry streak and changing climate patterns are also in play.

That mean snow lovers are basically stuck waiting to see how the patterns actually play out.


Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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