The Lore of Winter Weather Predictions

The squirrels and chipmunks scamper about preparing for winter, stashing nuts and building their nests with an almost apocalyptic intensity. There’s a bounty of pine cones lying askew on the ground. Temperatures are dropping and winter is coming.

The question on everyone’s mind as the impending winter season approaches is what kind of winter is Tahoe in store for this year? Will it be another epic season or will we see a drier season this year? How much snow can we expect and when will it start to dump? After an early September snowfall, the winter snow buzz is in the air.

“You can’t trust long-range forecasts; no one knows. And you can’t predict weather patterns more than a week or two out.”
—Bryan Allegretto

Scientists and weather forecasters are making long-range predictions while other folks depend on old-fashioned folklore. Were there more bees than usual? Were they more aggressive? Are there more pine cones on the ground this year? Do squirrels and chipmunks seem busier than usual, scurrying around hastily hoarding? If so, some agree these are all signs of a better than average snow season ahead.

California snow forecaster Bryan Allegretto of OpenSnow Tahoe Daily Snow doesn’t like making guesses nor does he give much weight to folklore. He forecasts the weather using facts; locals read his daily reports.

Mark McLaughlin recaps the 2018-19 winter season

“I do all research myself. I don’t trust any other research,” says Allegretto, pointing out that last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a warm and dry West Coast and cold and snowy East Coast, which was not accurate. “You can’t trust long-range forecasts; no one knows. And you can’t predict weather patterns more than a week or two out.”

According to Allegretto, we will not see an El Niño or La Niña this year. The effects of a strong El Niño include wetter and cooler than normal winters while a typical La Niña is the opposite and prevents storms from delivering precipitation to the region.

“There are a thousand variables that affect weather. If one thing changes, the weather pattern shifts,” he says.

Allegretto is a bit wary for the upcoming winter season: “I don’t see any positive signs right now but that doesn’t mean we won’t get a few atmospheric rivers that can happen. All it would take is two or three atmospheric rivers to create a change in the weather pattern.”

Allegretto uses last year as a prime example of predictions going wrong.

“We had an extremely dry season going into January, one of the Top 10 driest on record and then three atmospheric rivers brought record-breaking snowfall in February,” he says. “We can’t cancel winter here.”

He muses that folks are already dooming winter with the NOAA prediction and a dry October. He reminds us of the 700 feet of snowfall Squaw Valley recorded last season and adds that AccuWeather is predicting a wet winter for our region.

What do the animals know?
“Big winter interpretations are likely favored around here, perhaps a local bias. But I wouldn’t be surprised if those biases hold across the whole of the country,” says Will Richardson, executive director of Tahoe Institute of Natural Science, about animal behavior. “Most observations follow the pattern of interpreting conspicuous pre-winter preparation on the part of animals as a sign of impending weather hardship — and the more conspicuous, the harsher the weather.”

Examples Richardson says include fat deer and bears, busy squirrels and chipmunks and early migrating geese.

“I’ve heard a number of folks suggest that large numbers of yellowjackets or their aggressiveness in the fall predicts a heavy winter. This, too, is totally unfounded. The populations of our yellowjackets fluctuate wildly from year to year and those population dynamics are poorly understood. The colonies themselves grow until winter comes and as food gets more challenging to find. Plus the more mouths to feed, the more yellowjackets get aggressive,” he says.

65 winter seasons
Norm Saylor former owner of Donner Ski Ranch and board member of Donner Summit Historical Society has lived locally for more than 65 years. He’s seen many a winter in Tahoe.

“I read the weather forecasts and the Farmer’s Almanac,” he says.

He mentions that butterfly migration is often an indicator of a big winter to come and we had a big surge in migration this past summer. He has heard that when the trees lose their color and leaves fall off early that it could be a cold and drier winter. But he doesn’t take much stock in any predictors of weather.

“We’ve not been getting the wet, heavy snow in the past few years like when I first came up here: the Sierra cement. The last few years have been cold and dry snow. Does anything mean anything? I don’t know. But I don’t think any person alive can predict the weather and tell you what’s going to happen,” he says.

Whatever you hope for this winter, it’s time to begin your snow dance and pray for a few atmospheric rivers to come this way. | opensnow.com/dailysnow/tahoe