BOSTON (CBS) –So here we are, January 30th, and the question we are getting on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis: Is winter over? I get why people are asking the question, I mean we have had just 3.1” of snow this month. In fact, you have to go all the way back to December 1-3 (nearly two months) for our last truly significant snowstorm in Boston. We have had just 14.6” of snow this winter, combine that with the 27.4” last winter and you don’t even add up to the average for a single winter in Boston.
Then you take into account how warm it has been. Dating back to December 22nd, the last 34 of 39 days have had above average temperatures. January is going to finish as the 3rd warmest month of January in Boston’s recorded history, warmer than any other January since the early 1930s.
So, I get it. It feels like one of those years. It’s happened before, as recently as last year and back in 2011-2012, great examples of winters when we just couldn’t get everything in the atmosphere to line up. In many ways the winters here in New England are typically remembered and documented by just a couple of storms hitting or missing. This weekend’s out-to-sea storm is a perfect example. Had things lined up just a tad differently, we could have added a nice big number to our seasonal snowfall total, but instead, wide right – a storm for the fishes.
It isn’t all just luck, there is some science to all of this of course. This winter has been ruled by a few large scale atmospheric happenings.
First, the Arctic has, for the most part, remained in the Arctic. You surely remember the term “Polar Vortex” from a few winters ago. Well this vortex around the North Pole has stayed in the positive phase, meaning it has largely remained tight and centered around the Pole. When that vortex weakens (remember back to those harshly cold winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015), it allows for big dips in the Jetstream and air straight from the Arctic plunges down to our latitude. This simply hasn’t happened this year.
Second, you may remember something called the “Greenland Block” from past winters. Many times a large area of high pressure will set up shop over Greenland for a period of 4-6 weeks. When this happens it is like throwing a major roadblock in the weather pattern over the northeastern U.S. Storms are forced to our south and colder air is shoved into New England. Combine a southern storm track with cold air and voila. . . you’ve got a recipe for snow and nor’easters. Most recent example of this would be back in March of 2018 when we had, not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 nor’easters! Anyhow, thus far this winter there has been no blocking whatsoever up in Greenland, so therefore most of the storms that have affected the Northeast have plowed right through or west of New England, bringing a mix or rain to our area.
Next up is something known as the Madden-Julian Oscillation. This is essentially a large area of stormy weather that tends to propagate near the equator from the area between India and the Pacific Ocean to the east of Australia. How the heck does this matter to our winter here in New England? Well, think of one of those setups where a ball is rolling through a bunch of obstacles, perhaps you have even set one up in your house with your kids. One thing gets knocked over into something else, which triggers something else spinning, flipping, falling and in the end the ball drops into a bucket in a completely different room than it started. Same kind of idea here. . . this cluster of disturbed weather, depending on where it is at any given time and how strong it is, can have a large effect on the weather thousands of miles downstream. And, it just so happens, this cluster of storms has largely been moving through areas that promote warmth in the eastern part of the U.S.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we look to Alaska. Typically when Alaska is colder and snowier than average we are milder. . . and the same goes for the opposite. This is largely due to something called the Eastern Pacific Oscillation. When low pressure is centered over or near Alaska it does two things: First it keeps the cold bottled up in Alaska and second it throws a whole bunch of Pacific Ocean (mild) air into the U.S. pattern. Which, is exactly what has been happening this winter. In some of our cold and snowy winters (again think back to 2013-2014 and 2014-2015), there was high pressure over Alaska funneling air literally from places like Siberia and the Arctic down into the United States…obviously a recipe for a much harsher winter.
None of these parameters are foolproof, and you can still get cold and snow while any one of them are in unfavorable phases. However, combining all of these together in one winter makes it awfully one-sided, and certainly severely decreases our chances of a snowy or cold pattern.
Ok, so getting back to that million-dollar question. . . is winter over? Short and easy answer is no. I would be a fool to declare a New England winter over on January 30th. We can play catch up like nobody’s business here in New England, again, just look back at 2014-2015 when nearly 100” of snow came in a 6 week (late winter span). It CAN happen.
Now, having said that, I do NOT expect a repeat of 2015. In fact, pretty much all current atmospheric signs are pointing towards much of the same to start February. A strong (and Arctic centered) polar vortex, no Greenland block and the Madden-Julian convection likely headed back to areas favorable to warmth in our region. It also appears that the general pattern over the U.S. in the next few weeks will lead to the harshest cold being out west and the warmest air over the southeast, leaving New England somewhere in the middle. NOT a pattern conducive to long spells of harsh cold or big snow events here. However, living on the edge can come with some difficulties. Look no further than next week. New England may be sitting right in the storm track, meaning a very active, stormy pattern. Again, not a setup that would typically lead to much snow in Southern New England, but we certainly could have several more “mixed” events with a variety of precipitation in our area.
As it looks now, odds are, February 2020 will be another above-average temperature month, making it a clean sweep this winter (Dec, Jan, Feb).
Will we see more snow this winter? Yes, of course.
Will February bring a few winter “punches”? Most likely yes.
Will we make up for lost time and finish winter with a bang? Very unlikely.
Winter, not done. . . but clearly on the ropes.
Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryWBZ