After a snowy winter, some skiers and snowboarders are no doubt already starting to make plans for next year's vacation. It's impossible to know what the snow will be like a year in advance, but weather experts are keeping an eye on the Pacific Ocean, where an emerging El Niño may offer some clues about the long-range forecast.
After three years with near- and below-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued an El Niño watch. According to the experts, there's now 50 percent chance that those ocean waters will warm to above normal, setting up a pattern that can affect winter weather in Colorado.
But don't get too excited just yet. While an El Niño can enhance precipitation in some areas like Southern California and the desert Southwest, there's no strong correlation to big winters in Colorado, except maybe in the San Juans.
A spring and summer El Niño can boost summer rain across eastern Colorado, where it benefits farmers, and if the pattern continues into fall, it can help generate wet autumn storms that create a good base of snow in the mountains.
During the heart of winter, El Niño can play out in different ways. Looking at past El Niño winters, you'll find both very wet and very dry years, with a slight tendency toward increased precipitation in the early and later parts of the season, but slightly drier than normal in mid-winter. For now, the experts say there's a 50 percent chance that El Niño will form later this year, and the forecast should become more clear later in the spring. In the meantime, don't count your El Niños before they hatch!