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White-knuckle time: Will there be enough snow?

By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2010

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It seemed surprising to many at the end of the 2009 ski season to find that, despite a deepening recession, the Northeast ski industry did not take much of a hit, and in fact was close to breaking even. Last year was a repeat of that story.

What matters more, according to Wachusett Mountain marketing director Tom Meyers, is the weather.

“As long as the conditions were good for skiing and snowboarding, the people came out,’’ he said.

The trend even took an occasionally humorous twist. While talking to a stranger in the lift one day, Meyers discovered a laid-off electrician whose wife’s health plan paid for his skiing as an exercise.

“He seemed pretty happy about the economy that day,’’ said Meyers. “Instead of working he was skiing in really good conditions, and that was just fine.’’

Of course, the trigger to what most consider a successful New England ski season is what it always is: snow conditions, and not just in the mountains.

“It’s always the old story,’’ said Ethan Austin, who works at Sugarloaf in Maine. “It’s always better if people see snow in their back yards. Last season that worked out pretty well.’’

Indeed, last season brought storms on a southerly track, along with cold weather so that most people in the Boston area had plenty of snow around to remind them of the ski slopes.

According to Herb Stevens, a.k.a. “The Skiing Weatherman’’ who appears on 32 TV markets throughout New England, last year’s conditions were not New England’s best, nor will they be this season.

“The biggest factor in this winter’s weather — especially compared to last — is that we are in the midst of a La Nina now as opposed to an El Nino [last winter],’’ said Stevens.

“A La Nina winter in the east tends to be front loaded with cold and snow. We are already seeing that this December, where it’s been colder than normal and will continue to be cold. And because of the [jet stream] patterns set up, we should see snow this month to the north and right down to the cities — Boston and Providence.’’

Unfortunately for ski industry watchers, this trend often dissipates as the winter goes on.

“In a La Nina winter an upper level ridge usually develops in the southeast part of the United States and that means warmth that starts to pulse northward. That’s what contributes to those junk storms [warm rain-snow mixes],’’ said Stevens.

“So the weather in the cities in January and February will be rather dull. But when you go further north into the mountains, they’ll have enough cold air to fight off that warmth so that they should net snow out of most storms.’’

The tendency for below normal temperatures early, along with precipitation later in this month, said Stevens, could translate into good snow in the mountains. But in general, he adds:

“A lot of the onus for good snow conditions is going to be on the shoulders of the groomers [at the ski areas]. Because they are going to have to deal with other forms of precipitation that they’ll get at the front end of the storms. So give the groomers about 12 hours after a storm with those fleets of machines they use, and they’ll be able to produce some great snow. I think they’re going to be called upon to do that.’’

For skiers taking a trip west, “The Skiing Weatherman’’ offers the following advice:

“For people looking for snow in the west, stay north of Route I-70 [east-west interstate through Denver and the Continental Divide]. Because the southern wave of the jet stream goes to sleep, the southwest has trouble getting snow. And when the ridge pops up in the south, which I think it will around the first of the year, a complementary upper trough over the northwest will bring bountiful snow from the Pacific northwest to the central and northern Rockies.’’

This weather also is created by the La Nina effect, according to Stevens, and has made itself known most obviously with the collapse of the Metrodome.

“And if you look at Jackson Hole, Wyo., their three greatest snow years were all La Ninas, and they have already had 175 inches of snow at Jackson Hole.’’

Mountains in the northeast already have had dumps of natural snow, and enough cold weather to hold most of it through the warmth and rain earlier this week. Most reports are that the rain did little damage.

“We’ve had enough cold weather to get snow in place, and this rain didn’t kill it,’’ said Meyers, who has 12 of 22 trails open at Wachusett and expects to be fully open by the holidays.