Ski Preview: Forecasters say this season will be better than last for skiers and snowboarders
Snowmaking at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, which averages about 130 inches of natural snow per year.
The owners of Wisp, Maryland's only ski resort, have asked a bankruptcy court judge to approve a sale of the property to a unit of EPR Properties, a real-estate investment trust in Kansas City, for $20.5 million. Wisp will hire 350 seasonal staff and prepare to open Nov. 24, weather permitting.
Hidden Valley Resort and other resorts in the Laurel Highlands may receive 60 inches of snow at their bases and 100 inches at their summits during the season.
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Snow is expected to be back this winter.
Based on public and private long-range weather forecasts it should be an "average" winter with average snowfall early and then above average snowfall for downhill and cross-country skiers, snowboarders, snowtubers and snowshoers.
"Because of the unusual, above normal temperatures we experienced last winter, this winter will seem colder," said Jack Boston, expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather in State College. "And we're looking at some pretty good snow conditions."
The mean number of snow days with at least one inch of snow may increase from 25 days to as many as 35 days this winter, he said.
It's all a matter of degrees, of course, especially at resorts where they can make snow when the thermometer falls at least a few degrees below freezing.
"Although December temperatures may be slightly above normal by a degree or two, it can still snow," Mr. Boston said. "But the temperatures will be 3 to 4 degrees below normal from mid-January through February."
He said resorts in the Laurel Highlands -- Hidden Valley, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa and Seven Springs -- and their immediate northern and southern neighbors -- Blue Knob and Wisp, Md. -- may receive 60 inches of snow at their bases and 100 inches at their summits during the season.
That's good news for those resorts as well as others in West Virginia and western New York, all of which relied heavily on their extensive snowmaking systems last winter to begin, maintain and extend what turned out to be short seasons.
Seven Springs, which annually averages about 130 inches of natural snow, received only 64 inches last winter. That doesn't include the unexpected 11 inches of snow that fell on April 23, prompting the resort to reopen for one day. A photo of a snowboarder made the front page of the Washington Post.
"It's looking better for more snow this winter," said Dick Barron, the resort's ski patrol director who prepares the resort's daily snow report.
Getting accurate snowfall estimates and weather predictions is particularly important to regional resorts that try to pack in as many visitors as possible during the four-to-five-month snow sports season. Each resort relies on a different mix of weather forecasters to come up with the most accurate snow report for their location, which is particularly important since snow conditions can vary wildly between the slopes and nearby population centers. Resorts are constantly updating conditions on their websites and also have webcams on the slopes.
Mr. Barron, for example, arrives about 4:30 a.m. during the winter and uses a snowmobile to inspect the snow conditions. He uses Air Science Consultants and the National Weather Service and also confers regularly with meteorologist Demetrius Ivory at WTAE-TV, the resort's broadcast partner.
As snowstorms approach, Mr. Barron's twice daily weather checks increase to hour by hour assessments of the current temperature, precipitation outlook, wind speed and direction.
Forecasting weather generated by the Pacific Ocean, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean can be challenging for meteorologists under normal conditions. But when it gangs up on them by coming from opposite directions and colliding front to front, the result can be the heavy snowfall that arrived throughout the region, especially in West Virginia, a few weeks ago.
Jim Shultz, Hidden Valley's mountain manager, has relied for years on reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) because they have been especially accurate as to when precipitation will fall -- "no more than 45 minutes from the time predicted."
Jim Aman, a senior meteorologist and lead winter forecaster for WeatherBug/Earth Networks, said the winter forecast "is more challenging than usual. A number of the climate variables that are used in long-range forecasting are showing weak or mixed signals and so our confidence is lower than normal."
After crunching a number of factors, including the potential impact of El Nino and La Nina on the amount of snowfall or the lack of it, Mr. Aman said temperatures overall will be "near normal this winter" but may be "slightly below normal later in the winter in the Ohio Valley. Precipitation overall [will be] slightly above normal, especially in higher elevations and in [Great Lakes] snowbelts."
One of those higher elevations is Snowshoe Mountain, which, at 4,848 feet above sea level, is the second highest summit in West Virginia. The resort, the largest in the Mountaineer State, received 28 inches of snow from the recent storm.
Ed Galford, Snowshoe's vice president of operations, looks at two forecasting services each day -- Precision Weather, a national company with main headquarters in Portland, Maine, and Syracuse, N.Y., and Telvent, a global company.
He said Russ Murley at Precision Weather "has provided a personalized service with a fair amount of success over the past five years. We have a customized three-day chart with a detailed weather outlook focused on the summit and at the base of the mountain."
The location of Holiday Valley in western New York poses a particular challenge for forecasters, said Jane Eshbaugh, the resort's marketing director. Although short-term forecasts from various services have been "very accurate for most years," she said that long-term forecasts have a 50-50 accuracy rate.
"Our location east and south of Lake Erie sets us up for lake effect snow, which is probably the least predictable weather of all. Cold air from the north flows over the warm lake [and] then dumps snow when it hits the land. Typically, a lake effect storm happens in a pattern of narrow bands
"You can be at Holiday Valley and it will be snowing like crazy and it can be clear and sunny just five miles away. The snows can be on and off over the period of a few hours or up to several days where we could receive several feet.
"The forecasters know when the lake effect engine may start up, but they can never tell exactly where it might hit. We just cross our fingers," she said.
Holiday Valley relies on Precision Weather, Intellicast, the National Weather Service, NOAA, the Weather Channel, Herb Stevens the Skiing Weatherman and local forecaster Ted LaCroix's annual Pine Cone Report.
They are predicting "a cold and snowy winter," she said.
Brad Gravink, the plain-spoken director of mountain operations at Peek'n Peak resort in western New York, said the resort doesn't use a weather service "because there is so much access to the information on the Web.
"No one is accurate predicting the weather around here. The Great Lakes affect everything and throws off most models. Anyone that can predict an entire season is lying.
"I will tell you what kind of winter it will be in April" when the season is over, he said.
And that forecast for the resort will be 100 percent accurate.
First Published November 18, 2012 12:00 am