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Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: October 6, 7:38 PM ET
What will this winter's weather bring?

By Casey Flynn

Here's hoping storm days like this are in our near future.

For most U.S. skiers, last winter was desperate. It was the fourth warmest winter in recorded history and one of the least snowy across the lower 48. January could have been summer in the Sonoran, except for Alaska, which got rocked with massive storms that buried towns, and the Cascades, which had eight feet drop in late January. Nationwide, skier visits plummeted as ski areas experienced their worst season in 20 years. Like I said, desperate.

But enough about that. As forward-thinking snow enthusiasts, let's find out what's in store for the winter of 2013.

The first question we all want to know: What is El Niņo up to? A Sept. 20 report issued by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) stated that we are under an "El Niņo watch." Mike Halpert, deputy director of the CPC, likened it to a tornado watch. "Conditions are favorable for the development [of El Niņo], but just like with a tornado watch you don't always get a tornado," he said.

Halpert added that if an El Niņo winter develops, it'll favor wetter-than-average conditions across the southern part of the country and drier-than-average conditions in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies. The northeastern ranges could also see more snow because El Niņo can bring an increase in nor'easters.

The Old Farmer's Almanac, which has been forecasting weather since 1792 and boasts an 80 percent accuracy rate, focuses on solar activity data as a strong driver of climate. Mike Steinberg, meteorologist for the Almanac, predicts El Niņo will set up, but only of weak to moderate strength. "Most of the northern and western portions of the country will be milder and drier than normal, while most of the eastern and southern portions will be colder, wetter and snowier than normal," Steinberg wrote in an email.

What if El Niņo doesn't develop and conditions stay neutral? Then other climatic factors that determine the position and strength of the jet stream will play a larger role in shaping our winter weather, such as the Arctic Oscillation, which may have contributed to a southern dip in the jet stream and a cold and snowy winter on the East Coast two years ago.

This year's all-time-low sea ice coverage will likely weaken the jet stream as the more greatly exposed Arctic Ocean releases heat it absorbed in the summer, said Jennifer Francis, research professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. A weak stream is a wavy stream, one that meanders north to south and moves more slowly eastward across the United States. That means slow-moving weather patterns and potential for extreme weather as systems get stuck in the wandering waves of the jet stream.

"In terms of the ski season, it's likely that we're going to see some very interesting weather patterns set up this winter," Francis said. "Most likely there will be some extreme conditions, I just can't tell you where."

Casey Flynn has studied snow hydrology and mountain climatology in the high peaks of Colorado. He has worked in avalanche education and has collected snow and climate data as part of long-term research program.