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Early Santa Fe-area snow yields to drier conditions

December 19, 2018

For skiers, it’s all about that base. Not so for weather experts.

Deep snowpack serves as a sturdy foundation for a strong ski season, and at Northern New Mexico’s ski resorts, deep snows came early this year — a boon for the industry.

But for the meteorologists and hydrologists keeping an eye on precipitation in a drought-dried state, the snowpack numbers are looking a little less rosy.

One key measure that matters to experts is the snow water equivalent — the amount of water that would accumulate were the snow to melt. It helps indicate how well-watered the rivers and land will be come spring. Some snow is drier than others, they say, so a deep, dry 30-inch snowfall might only net an inch of water.

Based on snow water measurements, Northern New Mexico is trending below average this year, said Royce Fontenot, a senior hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

“We started off good,” Fontenot said. “We had an early season event in late October. That put some snow in the mountains. But … we’ve gone back into a dry pattern. While we’ve been getting some accumulating snows, it’s not as much as we’d like to see.”

This year, in the Rio Chama River basin, federally run snow-measurement sites have logged snow water levels at 62 percent of a 30-year average for this time of year. Snowpack is at 74 percent of average in the Jemez River Basin, 62 percent in the Upper Rio Grande basin and 78 percent in the Pecos River Basin.

The Sangre de Cristo basins are the outliers, with snowpack there totaling 113 percent of the average. Fontenot said that’s thanks to a strong system that moved through in November.

Climatologists have predicted lower snowpack for New Mexico in years to come as climate change warms the planet — leading to less snowfall, shorter ski seasons, shifting tree lines and decreased water supply, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, Fontenot said the season outlook remains strong, with precipitation anticipated at average or above-average levels.

A visit from El Niño should help. Officially, El Niño — a warming trend off the Pacific coast of South America that results in cold, moisture-heavy winters in the U.S. — hasn’t started yet, although it is predicted to kick off soon.

“We’re running behind, but it’s still early,” Fontenot said.

The 10-day forecast predicts a series of tiny systems moving through the area, with a small chance (though, it’s hard to tell this far out) of a flurry in Santa Fe on Christmas Day.

That’s good news for the region’s ski resorts. At Ski Santa Fe, where skiers and snowboarders glide over a 33-inch base of snow, spokeswoman Candy DeJoia said officials anticipate having 98 percent of runs open over the Christmas holiday.

“We always hope for the best,” she said. “And this year so far has been right in there with some of our best hopes.”

Ski Santa Fe opened on Thanksgiving, a date DeJoia described as “quite early” for an opening day.

For both meteorologists and skiers, one thing is for sure — this season is on track to best its predecessor.

With 59 inches of natural snow so far this year, Ski Santa Fe already has logged more than the entirety of last season’s 54 inches.

And when it comes to snowpack, some measuring stations logged their lowest levels ever last year.

“It’s hard to get lower than zero,” Fontenot said.

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