If a collective focus can make it happen, the Northland is in for a snowy winter as outdoor sports enthusiasts and snow play operators look to the heavens with hope and expectation. But if not, there is always science. Meteorologists say a very strong El Niño is brewing and forecast to continue through fall and winter. In fact, it is on track to become one of the strongest El Niños on record.
“All expectations are that this El Niño will be one of the strongest we’ve seen, and as such, is likely to have an impact on the weather of the Southwest,” said National Weather Service Flagstaff Meteorologist in Charge Brian A. Klimowski, Ph.D.
El Niño conditions indicate the occasionally dramatic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that impacts the weather across the globe.
“While the correlation between weaker El Niños and the weather in Arizona is tenuous, there is a much more dramatic correlation between strong El Niños and wetter than normal conditions for Northern Arizona. That’s what we need to be prepared for.”
“Being prepared” is the vibe that is hanging in the crisp fall air of Flagstaff. This is true not only for ski areas, but also for sporting goods stores, restaurants, hotels and many other local businesses, who see a direct and positive connection between increased moisture typical of El Niño years and a healthy bottom line for their ledgers.
Some organizations are now implementing special efforts in anticipation of the expected increase in visitation and sales. For instance, the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), whose principal function is to promote tourism, is creating signage to post along northbound Interstate 17. The signs will feature the URL of a winter recreation webpage that lists snow play areas and other recreation opportunities around Flagstaff.
“Our goal is to provide people with information ahead of time, before they reach town, so they can better plan the trip and be aware of the variety of activities available,” said CVB Public Relations Specialist Joanne Hudson.
In planning this effort, the CVB has partnered with several other agencies around town, including Coconino County, the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA; the operator of Mountain Line and related transportation services), Arizona Public Service (APS) and the Forest Service. Hudson says the URL will consist of a simple phrase such as “snownews” or flagsnowupdate” and should be ready to launch this month.
Arizona Snowbowl representatives say they are ready to adjust their operations according to when and how much snow arrives. Meantime, snowmaking machines are running now, as crews prepare for the ski area’s Thanksgiving weekend opening.
“Snowbowl is taking a conservative approach from a business standpoint, planning for an average year of snow,” said Marketing and Sales Director Jason Stratton. “Our industry is so weather dependent that it’s really hard to ramp things up until it snows. But, the beauty of our business is that we’re so used to going from 50 or 60 employees in the summer to 550 in the winter.”
Because of this, if Flagstaff does experience heavy snow, Snowbowl could ratchet up its operations in a matter of hours or days. And, if El Niño doesn’t meet great expectations of heavy precipitation? Stratton says snowmaking guarantees a winter ski season. “In a perfect world, we would use the manmade snow to open but then Mother Nature helps with natural snowfall, and that certainly helps operating costs. El Niño, thus, not only helps bring more business, but also helps our operation costs lessen because of less need for snowmaking.”
The Northern Arizona Nordic Center and Backcountry Adventures is also opening on Thanksgiving weekend. “Our yurts and cabins will be ready for glamping for those who want to rough it gently in the wintery forest,” said Nordic Center Manager Wendell Johnson. “We’re also ready to pounce with our grooming equipment to have the 25 miles of trails ready for outdoor fun when the snow falls. Our lodge is stocked with rental gear. So, in the same day, recreationists can try it all – cross country skis, ski skates, snowshoes and fat tire bikes.”
Johnson says the day after Thanksgiving will usher in the Nordic Center’s season of Friday bonfires. “We’ll stay open until 7 p.m. Our guests can relax with the warmth of the fire, roast marshmallows and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate. We really want to encourage people of all ages to embrace the beauty and healthy outdoor activities that winter allows us in the Northland.”
Another business, Peace Surplus, will likely hire one or two additional staff to help with the anticipated increase in business. It also has a ski rental department, which drives a lot of traffic into the store during snowy seasons.
“When Flagstaff has decent snow, we experience a solid rental season, especially for snowshoes and cross country skis,” said Steve Chatinsky, who opened Peace Surplus with his father in 1976. “Last year, the rentals were not so good, but this year we expect them to be very popular.”
Chatinsky says Peace Surplus stocked its winter gear before meteorologists forecast a strong El Niño and he may be “chasing inventory.”
“Being around all these years, I’ve got a lot of connections throughout the country and know a lot of stores. I touch base with them and see how their inventories are. If my winter is really kicking in and theirs isn’t, I might see if they want to dump some of their inventory and I’ll buy it, so even if the vendors are out, some of my friends might sell me some of their inventory.”
The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a greater than 80 percent chance of normal or above normal precipitation across Northern Arizona this fall and winter. “This is right in line with our analyses,” said Klimowski. “We should expect and be prepared for a couple of wet seasons.” FBN
By Kevin Schindler, FBN