Contrary to popular belief, El Niño is not Spanish for “bad ski season.”
“It just tips the probabilities that way,” said Brad Colman of the National Weather Service.
So, even though scientists are predicting an El Niño winter, ski resort staffs and 2010 Olympics planners aren’t panicking.
El Niño is a weather pattern created by the warming of tropical Pacific Ocean waters. Typically an El Niño winter means warmer and drier winters in the Northwest.
In 2004-05 there was so little snow, skier visits dropped from 1.9 million the previous year to less than 500,000 – the worst ski season on record. The El Niño of 2002-03 resulted in a drop from 2.2 million visits to 1.4 million.
“We aren’t getting nervous at all,” said Tiana Enger of Crystal Mountain. “We’ve seen that an El Niño isn’t always a bad thing.”
Enger is right. The 2006-07 El Niño couldn’t keep Crystal from opening two weeks early, and Whistler Blackcomb got 558 inches of snow, its second-snowiest season. During the 1998-99 El Niño winter, Mount Baker set a national record with 1,140 inches of snow.
What type of ski season this El Niño brings will likely be decided early in the next few months, Colman said.
“If it is a snowy, wet fall we can build up a good snowpack,” Colman said.
The warm weather brought by El Niño usually comes in January, February and March. A good snow base early would keep skiers and snowboarders on the slopes even if there’s a shortage of fresh powder.
NaTai Perdue isn’t worried about the forecast either.
Perdue is in charge of snowmaking at Whistler Blackcomb, where Olympic skiers will be racing for gold medals Feb. 12-28.
“The courses will be dialed without a doubt,” Perdue said. “We are tracking for normal.”
Skiers have been able to ski all the way from the summit to the village by Christmas every winter, Perdue said – even in the especially bad winter of 2004-05.
Whistler Blackcomb’s artillery includes 270 snowmaking guns and a 52 million-gallon reservoir. Whistler Mountain, where the Olympic races will be held, has a 20 million-gallon reservoir.
Whistler Blackcomb typically turns 130 to 180 million gallons of water into snow each season. That’s enough snow to blanket 650 to 900 acres with a foot of snow.
It would take 39 million gallons of water to cover the Olympic runs and training hills with man-made snow if the weather didn’t help.
However, Perdue said, there was already snow on the upper mountain in late September.
Whistler Blackcomb officials expect to have the Olympic runs open for the public to ski by the end of the year and will leave them open until Jan. 24 before they close for the Olympics.
Perdue said the racecourses need only about a foot of snow to make them race-ready. The snow is injected with water for racing. Snow on a normal recreational ski run is about 30 percent water, Perdue said. An injected race course is 70 percent water.
“It’s like skiing on an ice rink,” Perdue said.
Snowmaking was scheduled to start at Whistler Blackcomb on Oct. 12, Perdue said.
“Everything will be ready for the Olympics and regular recreational skiing,” Perdue said.
Craig Hill: 253-597-8742