It's still awfully green in large parts of the Northern Alps and increasingly I am asked 'Wil things be okay Morris?" And let me be honest, I occasionally ask myself the same question. Because it is already the second of December. The last significant snowfall was (late) October and then it was white deep in the valleys. But this snow was too early. Too bad. The mid-alpine was green again and many peaks in the northern Alps are craving for fresh snow.
A period of endless snow from the south followed and parts of the Southern Alps had 6-9 meters of snow since the start of winter. Not that those amounts of snow can be found there now, because due to the settling, wind, heat and transformation the snow cover is will get thinner over time. Yet, there is already about 120-250 centimeters above the 2,200 meters. An amount of snow for which St. Anton, Kaprun or Fieberbrunn would kill for at this time. It it really that bad?
Mhhh, let's don't jump to conclusions that quickly. Our brain is a wonderful thing and for some reason we see what we like to see and we don't see the rest. In addition, we mainly focus on what we have learned today and yesterday and we tend to forget to reflect on the past. And for many of us is the Northern Alps dramatic winter of 2013-2014 still fresh in the mind. So much, that the term 'southern stau' leads to an almost Pavlovian-like reaction full of horror. The connection southern stau = dramatic winter for the northern Alps is there. Understandable, but little scientific. The emotion in us implies causality, but is it there?
The early days?
Before we dive into the numbers we take a little step aside. In the early days, everything was better, right? In a sense, it was. Previously we had no webcams, Internet was a gravel road, we were not continuous online, we called each other instead of texting, facebooking and tweeting and what else. News trickled sparsely by underground ways and finally reached us.
The first snow often came only a week before Christmas in the media through television or the papers. Even when I decided in 2005 to start publishing my weekly emails about the weather in a little blog, my first posts were published only in the month of December. But as we became more mobile, we are online continuously, there are webcams everywhere, we have installed apps, we are flocking to share and even become observer the news about snow is coming from pretty much every corner. And when someone shouts out that things are not going well in the northern Alps, then we agree to that opinion without any checks. And let's face it: the posts that are most widely shared are the messages where we report a lot of snow and the messages where we tell you that things are fucked up. Everything in between is not interesting. Facebook has enabled us to communicate in an extreme manner and in some cases people even deliberately exaggerate. In science we call this fraud, but if 'our snow' is concerned, we like to go with the flow. On social media the grass is greener on the other side and the snow is always whiter and especially deeper.
In a sense it was better in the early days. At least for me. I only started in December with my first forecasts and after some weekly calls with my friends in the Alps, I quickly had a complete picture. In the meantime, I drank a coffee, made sure that my gear was in okay and then had to wait for what winter had in mind. I toured (free of care) through the Alps to places where the snow would fall. A few times I was already in November, but there were years when it was only in January where I could ride the first powder. Winter is determining the rhythm and I simply adapted to that. In short ... there used to be less data and we worried less, way less. We did not simply know if there was snow in the northern Alps.
Back to the numbers
Is our sense right or are we kidding ourselves? Does it really mean that all the snow that falls in the south will result in another dramatic winter in the north? Will we get a southern stau rather than a northern stau? Let me start by setting your mind at ease. The assumption that the many snow from the south right now leads to a winter with only southern staus is based on nothing. The same applies to the green slopes in the northern Alps. That doesn't guarantee a dramatic winter in the northern Alps. These are all emotional assumptions.
Let me first say that the winters in the Alps are erratic. That there are no or few indicators that tell us the entire course of the winter. We do not suffer from La Nina or El Nino and so far we have no phenomena that determine a mark on the weather in the Alps. We will have to deal with the capriciousness.
Yet I do mention the following quite often. Autumn normally is for the Southern Alps. It is this time of year, the base of the snow cover comes down in the south and the main alpine ridge. From December on, the western and northern Alps are next. Often we see a period starting at New Year where a westerly flow brings snow and a shifting snow line to the western Alps, followed by northern Staus in January. Mind you, these are gross characterizations of an ideal winter, but we often saw this scenario in the past winters. But what is a good northern winter? The funny thing is that there are few figures available. At least, figures are there but they are never examined to answer the above questions. And so I had to dig in my own data and memory, and I like to hear your data and memories as well.
Early snow in the northern Alps is not good
This is said among the older locals (you know, people who already lived in the mountains before Facebook etc ..). Let's see .... Last winter (2013-2014) started early in the northern Alps but pretty much ended in November. Ischgl knew one of the best openings ever and after that the snowfall in the northern Alps never came. Winter 2001-2002 started early as well. Snow came down in September, followed by a poor winter an this time for the entire Alps. Winter 2002-2003 started early with lots of snow in October and November. December, January and February were relatively dry and only in April, it was on like Donkey Kong again. It was an okay winter for the northern Alps and fine in the Southern Alps. Winter 2007-2008 began with promising record amounts of snow from mid-November. In early December, winter came back, and then it turned out to be a southern winter. A winter, quite the same as the winter of 2013-2014, where the northern Alps never got their share.
We see a number of winters that pretty much confirm this. Early snow in the northern Alps is not good. If we turn this around we get to the following hypothesis: Snow December and especially January in the northern Alps is good.
Snow in december and especially January in the northern Alps is good
There is plenty of 'proof' for this hypothesis. The 1999 avalanche winter started late. Only in January the snow started falling in the north and it just didn't stop anymore. Also winter 2003-2004 had some snow in October in the north, and the south was up next. Until mid-December, the snow didn't come down in the northern Alps but it pretty much snowed for the rest of the season once it started. It was a very good winter in the north and winter continued into May. The same picture is seen in winter 2005-2006. Snow in October and then rather dry. Until mid-December, then it started to snow and it was a very good winter that continued till late april. Winter 2009-2010 only started late and it was late January when it was at full speed. February was particularly good in the northern Alps. Winter 2011-2012: snow in October and warm temps and no snow in November. Winter really started in the middle of December. Winter 2012-2013 brought snow in October and warm temps in November (with lots of snow in the south). Only in December it started to snow and it became a great winter in the northern Alps. Christmas was as often mild, but January and February very good. It was cold.
Are there exceptions?
Yes, winter 2000-2001 started early in the Southern Alps and never stopped, but conditions were bad in the northern Alps. The same applies to the winter of 2004-2005. Some snowfall in October and November, winter never really started. Amazingly, April 2005 was the best month in the northern Alps. Winter 2006-2007 never really took off in the north with only a few dumps. This winter started late, but had to deal with a shifting snow line and rain up to high altitude. 2008-2009 winter began early and was exceptionally good with lots of snow in the entire Alps. Everywhere was plenty of snow. Winter 2010-2011 was never really going anywhere and had less snow than usual.
The data is a bit bulky and all your corrections and additions are welcome. If we are allowed to conclude anything it is this: Winters in the Alps are fickle and past results offer little certainties for the future. If we are already can conclude something, then it's the 'fact' that the winter better starts late than early in the northern Alps. And of those cautious observation we already have to address one point: winter has not started early in the northern Alps. Now part 2 ... let that northern Stau kick in!