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Cold analysis: no major meltdowns

The fundamentals of snow sports, of course, are snow and equipment to slide on it. But to Herb Stevens, who is as passionate about golfing in spring and summer as he is about skiing in winter, the fundamental underpinnings of all outdoor sports is simple -- weather.

There's little surprise about this vision by Stevens, who, for the last 18 years, has been known as "The Skiing Weatherman," a TV feature that analyzes the coming conditions for those about to invest time and money in snow sports.

Stevens appeared on Channel 56 for the last 18 years, before the station was bought by Channel 7. (He says he is close to finalizing a deal with NESN.) His reports, among others, are sought out by ski resorts throughout the winter.

The bottom line this year, says Stevens, who has been skiing for more than 50 years, is that we should be spared the January meltdown that fairly scuttled last season.

"An extended warm spell anywhere close to that duration is not going to happen this winter, I don't believe," says Stevens, peering into his computerized crystal ball.

"Having just come off the ski show circuit," he says, "it will probably come as no surprise that the main topic of conversation was not new lifts, new skis, or season pass deals. It was the weather. And the questions were the same everywhere: 'What's with the El Niño? Does it mean we'll have a bad winter? Will we have another major meltdown?'

"I'm happy to report," he says, "that the majority of signs for the upcoming winter are positive, and the purpose of this discussion is to break down those signs and give people some sort of idea about what to expect over the next 4-5 months."

El Niño is a climatologic and oceanic condition discovered by Peruvian fishermen that can affect the weather worldwide.

"We are in a weak to moderate El Niño this year," Stevens says. "That magnitude usually produces a pretty good quality winter for Northeast skiers and riders, in terms of temperature and snowfall. I think New Englanders will end up with a 10-20 percent above snowfall average."

That does not mean the season will swing into gear anytime soon. "Early season is a crap shoot this year," says Stevens. "The wide temperature swings of November are going to continue well into December, so the start of this season has more bumps in the road to negotiate yet."

For snowhounds planning an early trip out West in search of white gold, Stevens has some added advice: "Stay north of I-70, where snowfall has been abundant late this autumn.

That part of the country will turn out dry after mid-December, however, and trips west in the second two-thirds of the season should be taken to resorts south of I-70, where El Niño will produce a boatload of snow this year."

Interstate 70 runs west out of Denver, bisecting the Great Divide of the Rocky Mountains in Summit County, stringing ski areas such as Arapahoe, Copper, Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, and Beaver Creek. How the weather breaks along this 2-mile-high mountain ridge is determined to a large extent -- at least this year -- by the El Niño currents. Stevens has spent much time studying such currents because their effects are so telling at North American ski resorts.

In late December every 3-7 years, he says, fishermen off the coast of Peru, Ecuador, and the west coast of South America have noticed huge amounts of dead fish in the water instead of the teeming schools they usually found.

Scientists discovered the cause of the massive fish deaths was a current of above-normal water temperatures, the warmth depleting the water's oxygen.

In strong El Niño years, the excessive heat from the Pacific streams gets into the jet stream and results in a mild winter across the continent, though the high peaks of the southwest and Rockies usually get large snow dumps in such conditions.

This year, says Stevens, the El Niño is weak, "and the overwhelming consensus of forecasts for the next several months is that it will remain weak" indicating that the cooler eastern Pacific waters may well produce the winter of skiers' dreams in New England -- lower temperatures and bigger snowfall.

Because of the jet streams in the northwestern Atlantic and unusually warm water, arriving cold fronts can turn into "formidable coastal storms," says Stevens, setting up a pattern that will provide "two of the three prime ingredients for northeasters, which I happen to think will be fairly common this winter.

"I also happen to think that the odds are that we will see one or two major coastal storms -- the type that gets talked about for years."

Bottom line, look for cooling temperatures and some decent snowstorms this winter, but remain patient.

Says Stevens, "The downside to warm Atlantic waters is that they will tend to insulate coastal locations from early season snow, so if you're looking to energize skiers and riders with backyard snow early in the season, Mother Nature probably won't be able to help too much."

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