By Terry Eliasen, Meteorologist, WBZ-TV Exec. Weather Producer

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.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

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.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

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.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

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.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

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.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

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.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

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

Comments (10)
  1. Daniel Paul says:

    Thanks Terry, It really does stink when we have to rely on NOAA’s website to actually be able to read something more technical regarding our upcoming weather. Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of “personality” with NOAA. You pretty much answered everything I was wondering regarding this year’s winter. Any early info on summer yet ? Another top 10 in avg. High Temps?

    1. terrywbz says:

      Thanks Daniel…A bit early to make a call on summer but looking back at similar winters does show a likelihood that spring will follow suit and be milder than average

  2. tomstambaugh says:

    It is unfortunate that nowhere in this piece do you even mention the role of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

    Weather is, of course, different from climate. There are, nevertheless, still some significant questions that this piece ignores, such as:

    1. What is the likelihood that the record warmth of January would happen in the absence of AGW?

    2. What is the likelihood that the January temperature data for the last five years would happen in the absence of AGW?

    3. How does the seasonal data for the past 60 months (5 years) compare with the last 1200 months (100 years)? What is the likelihood that this seasonal data would happen in the absence of AGW?

    It is true that climate is different from weather. A sequence of 2-3 successive heads does not mean that the coin being tossed is weighted. On the other hand, the likelihood of a fair coin producing 50 heads in a row is vanishingly small. Our weather is consistent with the AGW hypothesis and inconsistent with a claim that AGW is false. There is solid data supporting the AGW hypothesis. There are no known mechanisms other than AGW that explain the data we already have.

    I think is irresponsible for you to avoid mentioning AGW in this piece.

    1. terrywbz says:

      Thanks for the comments Tom…Climate change obviously has some hand in all of our weather. It is very difficult to connect the dots between climate change and a single month or winter though. Does a warming planet have some effect on the recent trend of milder seasons, seasons shifting, sea level rise, etc etc? Yes of course. However the article above was meant to discuss the main reasons for what is happening in the shorter term of the last few months. Also keep in mind I am not a climatologist. While I have a good understanding of what is happening to our Planet, my focus on a daily basis is on the short term (weather forecasting) and to a lesser degree seasonal forecasting. I leave the global forecasting to others who are much more well versed in that science. But, rest assured, we will continue to explore the connections locally to climate change and our regions weather and changing landscape in the days and months (and years) to come.

      1. tomstambaugh says:

        @terrywbz: I appreciate your response. As I tried to say in my comment, forecasting is certainly different from climatology and you are a forecaster — fair enough. Our climate crisis is urgent enough that we must be able to help those who are not climatologists understand the facts.

        The specific point of the questions I ask is that they help connect long-term climate questions to everyday weather. It is not possible to show that a single cigarette caused a particular tumor or to show that a particular person’s respiratory disorder is caused by their two-pack-a-day habit. It is possible to go in the other direction, though. The likelihood of emphysema and lung cancer is dramatically lower in non-smokers. The combination of symptoms and smoking is a very good indication that smoking is causing the disorder. In a similar way, questions I pose show that the weather we are seeing is extremely unlikely in the absence of AGW.

        There will be those who dismiss the reality of the climate and weather data all around us, just as there are those who dismiss the connection between cigarette smoking and respiratory diseases.

        It seems to me that those of us who understand the science have an obligation to share the implications of that science with those of us who do not.

    2. Tom,

      What is REALLY unfortunate is that you can’t simply be happy with what was presented to you, instead you have to make what APPEARS to be a Geo-Political statement trying to link our current weather with global warming.

      Instead of saying thank you for the extended outlook you choose to criticize instead.

      How about this…try repairing your cranial rectal inversion and then you might have a clue that what was being presented was a SIMPLE article/summary of what has been going on and what we can expect in the near future.

    3. Terry,

      Thank you for the good news. So far for those of us who don’t care for the white stuff this has been a nice winter thus far.

    4. auriam says:

      Why the hell didn’t you mention the scientific consensus on global warming? Afraid of offending the science deniers?

  3. You won’t get consensus on 250 ppm increase in co2. The science is lacking on climate sensitivity to that gas. There is semblance of consensus on albedo change. That is, on a whole humans are reducing the reflectivity of earth. Probably the biggest factor for warming over the last 125 years is a thinning of cosmic dust. This allows more cosmic rays which tend to warm the planet. Nature cannot help what it does but humans can. I’ve always been a proponent of a neutral species. If are to be that, we need to reduce fossil fuel use significantly. This makes even more sense given the mostly natural upward trend in temperature. What I find stupefying is how a chief meteorologist can recycle last year’ s failed winter outlook for this one. sea surface temperatures essentially no different from last year, and the North Atlantic Oscillation has for the most part been absent in our winters since 2015

  4. One other point on our lackluster winter. This winter is the debut of a grand solar minimum which is suppose to last decades. Perhaps 45 years of lower sunspot intensity. The less active sun should have resulted in at least a normal winter across the nation but it hasn’t In fact contiguous US temperature may fall in near 40 percentile for warmth. If solar activity is the important influence that many say, there must be an additional explanation and that again would be the reduction in cosmic dust. When solar activity was low and cosmic dust comparatively high, winters in much of the 1960s were cold. This recurred in the mid to late 70s. It makes sense that external factor of cosmic dust is the main driver to global climate. It would also easily explain the extreme phase condition of the MJO this winter

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