An Adventurer's Guide to El Niño

Credit: Jeff Farsai / Getty Images

El Niño — a weather pattern characterized by unusually warm water in sections of the Pacific that leads to changes in the atmosphere — is here, and intensifying at a rate that could equal, or even surpass, the two strongest seasons on record (1982-83 and 1997-98). While a strong El Niño can lead to hurricanes, torrential rain, and drought, it can also generate ideal conditions for skiing and surfing in the West. 

For skiers, that might mean a welcome reversal of last season's abysmal snowfall, when some resorts in the West saw less than 100 inches total. "With a strong El Niño I'd expect California resorts, from Tahoe down to Kirkwood and Mammoth, to see snowfall increase back up to normal levels, about 350 inches," says Colorado-based meteorologist Chris Tomer. Ski areas in southern Utah, southern Colorado, and northern New Mexico will also reap the benefits. "With most El Niños, you'll see a 10- to 20-percent increase in snowfall in southern Colorado/northern New Mexico, a 30-percent increase across southern Utah, and about a 40% increase in moisture in southern California," says Tomer.

Tomer says the sweet spot for skiing these resorts will be January, February, March, and even April. But that not all snow will be created equal. "Temps will most likely be running warmer than usual, which means a heavier, wetter snow at resorts closer to the ocean. Wolf Creek in Colorado may end up the king, where the snow is drier." In other good news, a strong snowpack sets up a strong paddling season (and fishing season) come late spring/early summer.


Meanwhile surfers on both coasts have been watching the storm count. Since the Tropical Cyclone Season began in mid-May, the tally is nine on the Pacific compared to just three on the Atlantic, an indication of strong El Niño activity. Even more telling is the measurement of ACE (Accumulated Cyclone Energy), which takes into account storm strength and duration. "So far, the area we call Eastern Pacific is at 173-percent of the average," says Mike Watson, Lead Forecaster with Surfline.com. "That's big."

But El Niño-induced tropical storms don't guarantee good surf. "It has to be the perfect storm, so to speak," says Watson. "First we have to get the storm, then it has to become sufficiently strong, and then it has to be within the southern California swell window." Still, more tropical storms mean more chances of big waves, a fact that has surfers in California, Hawaii, and Baja/Mexico exited.   

Plus, if conditions don't prove right for the perfect wave in the summer, a record El Niño practically guarantees it for southern California in the fall. "The jet stream that hits Washington and Oregon, and makes it really rainy there, gets altered, pulled south, and we get the effects — rain and strong surf — in California," says Chad Nelsen, CEO, Surfrider Foundation. "Think three-week runs of great waves that are head-high the whole time."