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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/17/2008

Where's the Snow? Ask a Badger

By Capital Weather Gang

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 Niña, the periodic cooling of tropical surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific. La Niña is the sibling of the better-known El Niño, 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 Niño and La Niña 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 Niño 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 Niña 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 Niñas 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 Niña 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).

By Capital Weather Gang  | February 17, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Local Climate, U.S. Weather  
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Next: Forecast: Briefly Mild Then Cold Settles In


Neat article

Posted by: Period | February 17, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Good evening from the Atlanta area everyone.

Thanks for sharing that!

We are about to get SLAMMED with severe/tornadic thunderstorms. I wish that there was a Capital Weather for this area, because they'd be all over it! But, there can only be one, and I'm happy our area has it :)

Hopefully any snow up there (hahaha...yeah right) will hold off until after I get home tomorrow night.

Posted by: weatherdudeVA | February 17, 2008 3:15 PM | Report abuse

When is La Nina over?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 17, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Not for months.

Posted by: mcleaNed | February 17, 2008 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Give me the crystal ball for Thursday!!!!

Posted by: Jake from Reston | February 17, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Jake-- The Crystal Ball is in the post below. But it's no longer looking very promising...

Posted by: Jason, Capital Weather Gang | February 17, 2008 8:44 PM | Report abuse

CAD is apparent, but too weak for ice, with regional temps. at 8:40 p.m.: Norflok 64, Charlottesville 39, Charleston W.Va. 65.

Rain now surging ne through s.w. Va. may give us a decent slug of moisture during the next several hrs. As indicated this a.m., the best shot would be either side of midnight by a few hrs.

Late week looking very convoluted with "surprising twists" likely again as with last weeks system.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | February 17, 2008 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Nooooooo, don't say that Jason!! :-(

Posted by: Peter | February 17, 2008 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Strong s.w. winds gusting to 35 mph are scouring out the cold air in my area. Temp. has risen 12 degrees from 41 at 5 p.m. to a current 53 at 9:30. The temp. at Crozet, 10 miles to my east and 700 ft. lower, on the other side of the Blue Ridge, was 13 degrees colder at 9:30, standing at 40!

Posted by: Augusta Jim | February 17, 2008 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it a bit early to the pull the plug on the end of the week scenario? :(

Posted by: weathergrrl | February 17, 2008 10:06 PM | Report abuse

oohh nooo! Mr. Jason!!!

Posted by: missy | February 17, 2008 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Weathergrrl: I don't believe anyone is "pulling the Plug", but as Jason said, model data is not as "promising" as 24 hrs ago. Model ideas will almost certainly change over the next few days. Wait patiently for the "interesting twists".

Posted by: Augusta Jim | February 17, 2008 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Interesting twists? Like what for example?

I suspect that future model runs will trend just as they have all winter.

That is, gradually working towards a warmer solution.

Looks like a warmup coming at the end of next weekend. Could be the beginning of the end for winter.

Posted by: Ivan | February 17, 2008 11:00 PM | Report abuse

the 00z gfs looks better than the 18z... if im reading it correctly

Posted by: Snowman in Herndon | February 17, 2008 11:54 PM | Report abuse

Snowman in Herndon:
You are exactly right! The 00z is both colder and includes more snow and ice.
Ivan: The "interesting twists" are already occurring!!

But, remember folks, this is only one run.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | February 18, 2008 12:16 AM | Report abuse

Try not to look at the models for two days, or look at anything to do with the weather. Sometimes an extra suprise surfaces after two days rather then following every run which can be tedious, especially this winter.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 18, 2008 12:20 AM | Report abuse

00z GFS looks colder and better for Thursday and Friday. My hopes are still clinging for that late season coastal storm. We have about a month to go.

Posted by: StormChaser | February 18, 2008 12:31 AM | Report abuse

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