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We spent the spring defrosting. We spent the summer forgetting. But now here we are again, on the cusp of a new winter. Everyone has an opinion on the snowy season and they run as hot and cold as our weather. The snow junkies are licking their chops hoping our stretch of stormy winters will continue. Folks on the fence of moving south are just praying for a break. Plow operators are rigging up their trucks and ski slopes are hoping to roll out the white carpet. So what does this year have in store for us? Here are the Top 5 takeaways from our WBZ Winter Outlook.
1) It Won’t Be Like Last Winter
Let’s set one thing straight first – it’s not going to be a repeat of 2014-15. Yes, there have been some headlines out there to suggest it’s going to be an epic snowpacalypse and we should all get ready to be buried alive. But the chance of seeing anything like last winter are is so incredibly slim that it’s barely worth mentioning.
To recap (sorry to bring you back down this memory road), we saw 110.6″ of snow in Boston for the snowiest winter ever recorded in the city. We picked up almost the entirety of it in 5-6 weeks, from January 24th through March 3rd. Two Top 10 snowstorms struck within two weeks of each other. Worcester recorded its biggest all-time snowstorm. We didn’t even manage to hit 40F degrees in Boston for a month and a half straight. Giant chunks of ice rolled into Cape Cod, causing a national sensation. And we recorded the coldest month in the history of the area (*most reporting stations). Folks, that’s not easy to do. It was remarkable for the blitz of snow, the huge totals, and the persistent deep cold that gripped the region. That’s something you may not see again in your lifetime, or at the very least for several decades. Only two winters on record have ever topped 100″ in Boston. In short, this winter won’t touch the remarkable one we just endured.
2) El Nino Will Be A Big Factor
You’ve heard all about it, you’ve seen the SNL sketch, and now it’s time to see what this strong El Nino is all about. The significant effects of El Nino are felt most during the late autumn and winter months in the U.S., and we’ve already started to see that influence this November.
El Nino recently set a record in *one* region of the Pacific, referred to as the El Nino 3.4 region. It’s one of the strongest ever recorded overall, although with the caveat that our period of record is short (since 1950). The one place still lagging 1997-98 is the namesake El Nino region, directly off the coast of South America (El Nino 1.2). It will be interesting to see if a more westward focused anomaly ends up being a factor when it comes to the end results.
The biggest thing to look for with a strong El Nino is an active and energetic subtropical jet stream, which brings stormy weather across the southern tier of the U.S. It also tends to flood the country with bouts of mild and moisture-laden air, and when in control can limit the number of arctic outbreaks trying to push down from the north.
When we talk about El Nino, it’s not just about its existence. Strength matters, and when we look back at the 2 strongest El Ninos on record (1982-83 and 1997-98) we see very similar outcomes. Warmer than average temperatures take over the northern states, while temps run cooler than average across the southern states due to the active storm track. We’re thinking that our winter will end up slightly above average here in southern New England.
3) Another Back-loaded Winter
Another feature of an El Nino winter is that the cold often takes its time working down out of the Arctic. While there are always bouts of cold air that can pour down from time to time in November and December, we’re expecting both months to run well above average in respect to temperature. It’s looking like the recent trend of ‘shifted seasons’ will continue, with the majority of true winter weather waiting it out until after the New Year’s champagne is poured. That’s not to say we can’t see snow or cold temperatures in December, but they should be more the exception than the rule.
If we’re going to pick up some decent snowfall and go through stretches of very cold winter air, they should be more focused late in the season – mid-January through mid-March. Yes, it’s true that we saw the same last winter. But we don’t think the depth of the cold is going to be as significant nor the persistence of it. It’ll be more ‘guerrilla warfare air’ that swoops in for an attack, but doesn’t stick around for long before retreating.
4) ‘Milder Than Average’ Doesn’t Mean You’ll Be Wearing Shorts
Sure sounds nice doesn’t it? Oh great, a milder winter! I’ll keep the golf clubs out! Well there are some important things to keep in mind here. One is that winter isn’t a mild season to begin with. Average highs in February are in the 30s, and lows in the 10s/20s. Even ‘warmer than average’ is still plenty cold. The other is that when you see those seasonal maps, it’s taking into account every single day and night in the season. It’s a smoothed out average, not a snapshot of what each day will bring. If winter ends up +0.5F versus average, the forecast would be right but you’d be hard pressed to really notice!
Many strong El Nino winters can feature what we call a ‘torch,’ – outbreaks of truly mild air. But the overall picture for this winter is less clear than others – when El Nino was a true dominating factor. This year we still have above average Siberian snowfall, and we still have a warm pool of water in the North Pacific. There is plenty of reason to believe it won’t be a ‘cancel winter’ situation and that we’ll still end up with some harsh stretches.
5) The Return Of The Rain/Snow Line
One of the weirdest and most impressive things about last winter is that everyone saw almost the same amount of snow. Boston had 110.6″. Worcester had 119.7″. The Cape and southern New Hampshire both came in around 90″. Parts of the South Coast were around 90″. That’s an extremely even spread for this area, and it was caused by the fact that there were no mixed storms. It was all snow, all the time baby. Constant arctic cold kept rain/sleet/ice out of the equation.
With warm SSTs (sea-surface temperatures) off the New England coast and an active subtropical jet stream, it’s very unlikely that situation will repeat itself. This winter should bring the triumphant return of more traditional storms, bringing mixed precipitation, coastal fronts, and rain/snow lines setting up in the 128 corridor. We’ll need to be extra vigilant of ice storms in particular, which are notorious during El Nino years.
What this means is that the perception of this winter versus the last will be different region by region. If you live on the Cape and Islands, you’re probably going to feel a HUGE difference. We’re talking 60-70″ less snow and no ice bergs. In my whole life I’ve never seen snow sit without melting like it did last year on the Cape, and it should not repeat itself this time around.
In the Boston area there will also be a big shift. Our forecast calls for less than half the amount of snow we saw in 2014-15 (40″, +/- 5″). More ‘snow to rain’ events are expected this time around. So we should be able to avoid abandoning cars for weeks, gigantic snow farms, and 6″ wide sidewalks. But you’ll probably still have to use those space savers in Southie.
Where you may not feel as much of a change is across far northern/western Massachusetts and northern New England. Snow totals were closer to typical values in these spots last winter (albeit still above average). And so with a more traditional winter expected, the overall change from year to year won’t be as noticeable as it will be to the south and east.