An El Niño-affected winter is in store for Japan. What does this mean for the upcoming ski season?
The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) has released its seasonal forecast for the 2023/24 winter season (December-February), and the numbers aren’t likely to impress the snowsports community.
While last year’s ski season was bolstered by the presence of La Niña, a weather phenomenon that typically results in a colder, snowier Japanese winter, this year has seen the emergence of El Niño, which, conversely, is known for producing higher temperatures and reduced snowfall.
Of course, El Niño is just one of many factors at play, and its presence is by no means cause for great concern, particularly in a country that receives more snowfall than any other.
El Niño conditions have already triggered Japan’s hottest summer on record, with temperatures averaging 1.76°C higher than normal. JMA has now declared a 90% likelihood that these conditions will continue until mid-winter, with “above-normal” temperatures expected to remain across the entire country.
Hokkaido and the Tohoku region are slightly less likely (40%) than the rest of the country (60%) to experience higher than average winter temperatures – a pattern that is also present in JMA’s snowfall forecast.
As is generally the case during an El Niño event, Japan’s snowfall stats are predicted to take a hit. However, this is less pronounced further north, particularly in the Hokkaido and Tohoku regions of Japan, where some of the country’s lightest, driest powder is found.
Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is typically most immune to the effects of El Niño, and this is reflected in JMA’s recent snowfall forecast, which shows both a 40% chance of “below-normal” snowfall and a 30% chance of “above-normal” snowfall.
With a 50% chance of below average snowfall, the outlook is slightly less encouraging for parts of the Chubu region in central Honshu, which includes both Niigata and Nagano prefectures – renowned ski destinations. It’s worth noting, however, that this region is home to some of Japan’s heaviest snowfall zones, where even a mild winter is still likely to produce world-class conditions for skiing.
Skiers can expect “near-normal” occurrences of sunshine in Hokkaido and northern Honshu, while the rest of the country enjoys a 40% chance of “above-normal” levels, meaning plenty of bluebird days.
It’s a near certainty (90%) that Japan’s winter will be influenced by El Niño, but the extent of its impact remains unclear. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the probability of below average snowfall sits between 40% and 50% throughout the country – far from definitive.
El Niño is often responsible for higher temperatures and reduced snowfall, but this certainly isn’t always the case. The 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, held in an El Niño year, were famously plagued by “too much snow”, causing a number of events to be rescheduled while thousands of volunteers cleared excess snow from the mountain.
During Japan’s last El Niño-affected winter (2018-19), the Myoko region recorded a staggering 1705 cm of snowfall, while the following year, in neutral conditions, this figure shrank to 905 cm. This past season, with assistance from La Niña, it recorded 1029 cm – impressive by world standards but by no means above average for the region.
In other words, skiers have no reason to agonise over long-term seasonal forecasts, particularly in a country blessed with some of the highest levels of snowfall in the world.
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