NewsJanuary 10, 2012

Will the Real Old Man Winter Please Stand Up?

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

These are dark days for snow lovers in the Lower 48 states. Snowfall is running below average from coast-to-coast, crippling profits at ski areas, while sparing stressed municipal snow removal budgets. Vail Resorts recently reported that skier visits at its six Colorado resorts are down more than 15 percent from last year, and a lack of natural snow has prevented it from opening the back bowls for the first time in 30 years. In Illinois, where a massive blizzard struck last winter, some communities are searching for places to store hundreds of tons of unused road salt that may be left over from this mild winter.

But a mild start to winter does not guarantee that the entire season will stay that way. In recent days, a growing number of meteorologists have been heralding a long-awaited shift in the weather pattern during the next two weeks that would favor at least somewhat colder and snowier weather in parts of the U.S.

For skiers, snow plow contractors and school kids hoping for a snow day, cold and snowy weather can’t come soon enough.

Last week, a January heat wave smashed records from North Dakota to California before spreading into the Northeast. At least 1,500 daily record high temperatures were set during the period from January 2-8.

On January 5, it was warmer in Rapid City, S.D., with a high of 73°F, than it was in Miami, where the temperature topped out at 69°F. Mitchell, S.D., reached 68°F, a record high for the month of January.

The warm week followed a practically snowless December for millions of Americans. Buffalo and Syracuse, two cities in New York that typically get slammed by Lake Effect snow events in December, had very little snow. The first inch of snow didn’t fall in Syracuse until December 15, according to the National Weather Service.

The positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in the mid-latitudes than in the Arctic, making for a milder winter for the U.S. The negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over the Arctic, pushing very cold air into the U.S. Credit: NASA.

With each passing day of bare ground, snow lovers are sliding deeper into depression, and weather-dependent businesses, including the ski industry, are losing more money.

One reason why the weather may be about to turn colder is that the Arctic Oscillation, which is a pattern of atmospheric pressure that helps steer the jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere, is transitioning into a new phase.

When it’s in a “positive phase” as it has been so far this winter, cold air tends to remain bottled up in the Arctic. In fact, the Arctic Oscillation hasn’t just been positive so far this winter — it’s been positively positive, so to speak, with the Arctic Oscillation index reaching its second-highest level on record, dating back to 1950.

This is the opposite of how things were in December 2010 and January 2011, when the Arctic Oscillation was extremely negative and several major snowstorms slammed the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Scientists do not fully understand what influences the behavior of the Arctic Oscillation, but some studies show links between it and the loss of Arctic sea ice, which is due in large part to global warming, and other research suggests that solar activity can have an effect on it as well.

Making reliable forecasts of how the Arctic Oscillation will, well, oscillate is tricky, but there are increasing signs that the Arctic Oscillation will trend down towards neutral or negative territory during the next two weeks, which would favor a cooler weather pattern across the U.S.

Some forecasters have been hyping the pattern shift. For example, Henry Margusity of AccuWeather (@Henry_Margusity) tweeted: “This is such an amazing weather pattern evolving. I told all the [forecasters] that we have a lot of winter ahead of us.”

But other experts say it’s too soon to tell exactly what type of weather pattern will follow the extraordinarily mild start to the winter season.

“. . . It's definitely tough to make much sense of the longer range patterns that the models are at times implying,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “It does appear that the AO [Arctic Oscillation] will be more neutral for the next week, but longer term, [it’s] harder to say.”

Cordova, Alaska has been bured by at least 18 feet of snow so far this winter, while much of the Lower-48 states have seen below average snowfall. Image credit: Rochelle Van Den Broek.

So far this winter, Alaska has been the only part of the country that has been experiencing unusually severe winter weather conditions. The town of Cordova has been besieged by a stunning 18 feet of snow, collapsing roofs and triggering avalanches. More snow has already fallen in Valdez, Alaska, so far this winter than fell during all of last winter.

Steve Bennett, chief science officer of EarthRisk Technologies, a firm that provides analytical tools to help businesses anticipate extreme weather events, said his company’s analyses support the idea of a changing weather pattern during the next two weeks.

“The question is what is it going to mean?” Bennett said. “I don’t think it’s quite as a clear cut that we’re going to see a massive pattern change that plunges the East Coast into an ice box for the rest of the winter.”

Dave Tolleris of Wxrisk, a private forecasting firm, wrote on his company’s Facebook page that the upcoming pattern change will be significant, but it “does NOT mean the winter of 2011-12 is about to turn Nasty for everyone and or the Northeast is going to see BIG snows or nor’easters . . . it might turn that way but we don’t know that yet. BUT the old winter pattern of 2011-12 that has featured sustained warm/ mild dry pattern IS going to end soon. And whatever the new pattern . . .  won’t be the same as what the last 45-60 days have been.”

In other words, snow lovers in the Lower 48 have a reason to hope the new pattern is one that brings more snowstorms, but another “Snowmageddon” or “Snowpocalypse” may not be in the offing.