Where's the Snow? Ask a Badger
By guest contributor Bob Henson
It's been a varied winter thus far in the D.C. area, with everything from freezing rain this week to thunderstorms a few days before. But snow lovers are craving the real thing (a possibility later this week). The season's snow total to date is a paltry 3.9 inches at Reagan Washington National and 6.5 inches at Dulles, which is less than half of the long-term average at both points. Even in New York City, it's been a disappointing season for the white stuff. Last month was only the third January in Central Park records to produce no measurable snow (the others were in 1890 and 1933).
If you're itching to plant your boots on a snowboard, perhaps a trip to the upper Midwest is in order. New England acquitted itself well in December, with record monthly totals in some areas. But for sheer consistency, it's hard to beat Madison, Wisconsin. On February 12, Mad City broke its all-time seasonal record of 76.6 inches, set in 1978-79. At least two more significant snows appear to be in the cards over the next few days for the beleaguered Badgers. Nearby towns have also gotten dumped on, through not quite so spectacularly.
What's causing this feast-or-famine pattern? At least part of the blame can be pinned on La NiÃ±a, the periodic cooling of tropical surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific. La NiÃ±a is the sibling of the better-known El NiÃ±o, a warming in the same region. Each one lasts a year or two and involves a huge swath of ocean--sometimes as large as the United States in some cases. The resulting rearrangements of heat and moisture mean that El NiÃ±o and La NiÃ±a can influence weather far afield, especially during the northern winter.
There's a distinct difference in how these two siblings treat the United States. El NiÃ±o tends to smooth out temperature contrasts across the nation, with relatively mild, dry air prevailing to the north and cool, damp conditions to the south. In contrast, La NiÃ±a prefers to stir the pot, generating frequent clashes between frigid Arctic intrusions and balmy air sweeping north from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, boosted this winter by an amazingly persistent ridge off the southeast U.S. coast. Of course, many other factors, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, also play a big role in how a given winter shapes up across the mid-Atlantic, as discussed by Weather Gang member Matt Ross a few weeks ago.
This winter we have one of the three strongest La NiÃ±as of the last 30 years in place (the other two were in 1988-89 and 1998-2000), so we might expect some especially sharp contrasts. Witness the intense storms that have zipped across the nation's midsection, generally moving from Texas toward New York. Just to the northwest of this persistent storm track, snows have been frequent, with Madison especially hard hit. On the flip side, severe weather has raked the mid-South with unusual regularity for mid-winter, including two major outbreaks of deadly tornadoes on January 7 and February 5 that have already pushed the year's preliminary U.S. tornado count as of February 15 to a whopping 191 (several times the norm).
Interestingly enough, the rollercoaster patterns that prevail during La NiÃ±a can average out when looking at the nation as a whole. In the January climate summary just released from NOAA, one would think it was a ho-hum month, judging from the national rankings for temperature (49th coolest in the 114-year record) and precipitation (50th driest). As we've seen above, the seemingly average readings hide some big weather action on the regional scale--though perhaps not enough wintry action for snow lovers in the Washington area.
Meteorologist Robert Henson is a writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He is the author of "The Rough Guide to Weather" (second edition, 2007) and "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" (second edition, 2008).
Capital Weather Gang
| February 17, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Local Climate, U.S. Weather
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