Utah skiers might see a lot of snow again in 2023-24, but only in parts of the state

Local forecasters warn that most of it could fall in the southern part of the state.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dorothy Weber enjoys the new snow as she skis at Bonneville Golf Course, on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.

Even before the flakes stopped falling last June, adding the final sprinkles to a record-setting 2022-23 snow season, some skiers and snowboarders started to fret. On the heels of the best ski season in state history, would average snowfall in 2023-24 somehow feel like a letdown?

Worry not, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration basically said when it released its latest seasonal precipitation outlook for December through February. Nature is likely to let Utah skiers down easy.

According to its calculations released Thursday, Utah has between a 33%-40% chance of receiving above-average precipitation this winter. That pairs with a 50-50 chance of “normal” temperatures throughout most of the state. Likely to the relief of snow plow drivers, that means Alta Ski Area probably won’t get the nation-leading 903 inches of snow it did last year between November and April. However, it could see more than its reported average of 497 inches over the past 50 years.

“Trying to get another winter like last year is going to be a tall order,” said Seth Warthen, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Salt Lake City forecast office, which uses the NOAA model. “Last winter was significant, to put it mildly — record-breaking. So, it’s really unlikely we’re going to get a winter quite like what we saw last year.

“All you can do is look at the signal, and right now at least the signal does favor that slightly higher-percent chance of above-normal precipitation. And with the right temperatures, especially at elevation, that would translate to maybe some more snow.”

NOAA.gov The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its Seasonal Precipitation Outlook for December 2023 to February 2024 on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. It showed up to a 40% chance of greater than average precipitation for Utah this ski season.

A strong El Niño winter can be credited for the expectation of increased moisture this ski season. Jon Gottschalck, the operational prediction branch chief at NOAA’s climate prediction center in Washington, D.C., said El Niños are not traditionally a reliable source of moisture in Utah, especially in the Wasatch and Uinta mountains. Most El Niños drop their moisture farther south instead.

Yet Gottschalck said El Niños seem to be moving more northerly over time, and simulators have shown this one to have “a very different sort of precipitation pattern.”

A weak El Niño delivered Utah one of its snowiest seasons. In 1994-95, 745.4 inches fell at NOAA’s Alta Guard weather station, which stood as the record until last season. On the other hand, in 2015-16, the most recent strong El Niño winter, that station recorded only 393 inches of snow, or about 100 inches less than usual.

The effect of an El Niño winter is “kinda all over the place sometimes for Utah,” Gottschalck admitted. “But there’s certainly periods where it’s definitely above normal. So, that’s certainly a good sign.”

Resorts in the bottom half of the state, like Brian Head Resort located near Cedar City, could be particularly well suited to reap the El Niño system’s rewards. Already Brian Head has set Nov. 10 as its opening date, which is the earliest predicted opener in Utah this season.

On the other end of the spectrum, that trend might mean simply average to below-average snowfall at more northern destinations. According to NOAA’s seasonal temperature outlook, the Ogden and Logan areas could be slightly warmer than usual this winter.

Most of the state should see more snow, however, unless it doesn’t. Warthen warned that occasionally El Niños result in less snow for Utah.

“The more important thing,” he said, “is going to be to keep an eye on those subtle shifts and where that strong Pacific jet stream goes and where these low-pressure systems track as to where that wet weather is really going to set up.”

The key is to not panic. The first freezes of the fall should arrive in Salt Lake City by the middle of this week, according to the NWS, and snow flurries are expected this weekend. That’s a good start for what’s shaping up to be a better-than-average ski season, but one that also won’t hold a shadow to the last one.

As Gottschalck said, “People have this great idea of what happened last year. It’s not going to be like that every year.”