'Nothing Takes Longer Than Waiting for Snow'
A Snow Lover's Refrain
Welcome to winter, but where's the snow? From the latest (sometimes sensationalist) news reports, it seems snowstorms are everywhere (even New Orleans!) -- except, as local snow lovers (including myself) can attest, in the D.C metro region.
Although we've had periods of sufficiently cold conditions for snow, almost all the significant precipitation has been rain. To me, rain in winter is a decided waste of precipitation, and below-freezing temperatures an unquestionable waste of cold air.
Keep reading for a detailed look at the unfavorable odds of getting big snowstorms locally, and the difficulties predicting them...
Unfortunately, it is not unusual in this area for wintertime precipitation and the requisite cold for snow to be out of sync. Moreover, the characteristically narrow (often less than 10 miles wide) band of "wintry mix" between snow and rain frequently runs up the gut of the D.C. area. Suffice to say, getting a snowfall of consequence around here (let's say, more than an inch or two) is no easy task, and the odds of a substantial snowfall (say, greater than 6") this (or any) winter are a long shot.
All of which evokes what I believe is unquestionably the most apt expression describing the sentiments of snow lovers, "Nothing takes longer than waiting for snow" -- a refrain from a verse of the song, Waiting for Snow, in the John McCutcheon album, Wintersongs.
But, alas, D.C. and vicinity does get really big snowstorms once in a great while. That reality keeps the hope of snow lovers alive, spurring a profusion of wishful thinking that this will be the winter...
Not incidentally, it often impels bias by some otherwise credible forecasters towards over-predicting snow (a trait not exhibited by CWG forecasters!), including perhaps in some of the winter outlooks described in Jason Samenow's recent post.
For a more comprehensive assessment on prospects for a "big one" locally, I've turned to Paul Kocin, a well known and respected expert on winter weather. For several years Paul was the Weather Channel's Winter Weather Expert. Together with Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), he authored the definitive and most comprehensive book on winter storms ever compiled, "Northeast Snowstorms" (Volume I: Overview, and Volume II: The Cases. I recently spoke with Paul at NCEP in Camp Springs, Md., where he's currently employed.
Not surprisingly Paul emphasizes that being a snow lover in these parts requires patience almost beyond endurance. He told me, "Keep your expectations low and you'll have fun." To which I responded, "That's a lot easier said than done!" Paul's counter exclamation to me: "Get a life!"
Even if relatively rare, Paul notes that "when it snows big -- it can be very big." Paul's lucid descriptions and photographs of past major snowstorms in the D.C. region are hard to top -- except, of course, experiencing the real thing.
None of the 10 "biggest" (listed below) comes very close to the 28" (drool, drool) which fell Jan. 27-29, 1922. Two of the top 10 have occurred in the last 12 years (in 1996 and 2003), so the notion that we're "overdue" doesn't really hold up when you consider the historical frequency of these events.
Three times Twice in our observed past, the wait between top 10 storms has exceeded 20 years.
Just as frustrating as waiting for snow can be trying to forecast it. Even as one of the most foremost experts on the subject, Paul readily acknowledges that forecasting snow in this area can be a very humbling experience. He and others have a long history of successes and failures even at predicting events less than 12-24 hours in advance.
Probably the most successful prediction in recent times was that for the March 1993 Storm of the Century when for the first time National Weather Service meteorologists accurately predicted a storm's severity -- though not all important details -- five days in advance.
Notwithstanding the continued improvement of weather forecast models thereafter, the most spectacular bust was the Surprise Snowstorm, Jan. 24-25, 2000, which went unforecast until just before it began to bury the Washington and surroundings with a foot or more of snow. Paul recalls saying to himself at the time, "This can't be happening!"
Bottom line: Some snowstorms are inherently predictable, some are not -- "Bad Forecast? Blame it on the Butterflies."
Looking at future snow prospects and considering recent snowfall trends, it's difficult to be optimistic. "Winters are getting warmer, with less snow," Paul lamented. Jason also discussed these trends in a recent post.
Though Paul didn't say so explicitly, I surmise that after living in Atlanta for three years (while with the Weather Channel), where snow prospects are distinctly grimmer than here, Paul might be thinking that D.C. could become the new Atlanta in the snow department (Boston, my hometown, the new D.C.?).
I'd prefer not to freak out over that dismal prospect just yet. Instead, I'll dream about an epic blizzard with biting cold, sheets of snow, howling winds, near-zero visibility, and towering drifts plastering frosting on the layers of white cake.
Snow or no snow...
P.S. My paper, "Must Surprise Snowstorms be a Surprise?" has been published recently in the American Meteorological Society monograph, Synoptic-Dynamic Meteorology and Weather Analysis and Forecasting: A Tribute to Fred Sanders. For those wishing a reprint of this paper, please email your request to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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