Monthly Archives: November 2013

Winter Hits Hard and Early; Unpredictable Nor’Easter Forming

October was fairly warm, and as recently as a week ago temperatures were in the 50s, but this weekend the coming winter hit us fast and hard.

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A heavy snow squall slammed through Vermont, leaving 1 to 3 inches of snow just about everywhere. The photo above shows the view from a Williston mini-mall as the snow squall closed in. It also quickly departed, leaving light, scattered snow showers but also frigid air and howling winds.

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Yesterday was awash with blowing snow, in blasts and drifts and the snow equivalent of dust devils. The temperature was in the low to mid teens, which meant wind chills below zero at times. The high temperature in Montpelier yesterday was the lowest ever recorded for the date. Then the wind calmed, skies cleared, and the temperature plummeted to 5 degrees. It would have been a cold January day, to say nothing for the weekend before Thanksgiving!

Today was sunny, but chilly. I took a meandering route home today and I found that the Winooski River had developed plenty of frazil and pancake ice during the cold spell.

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Now that the storm and cold blast are out of the way, we are bracing for a bigger storm, albeit not quite as cold. A Nor’Easter is forming right now, as evidenced by a little blob in the Gulf of Mexico. The weather models that predicted this little blog, and the coming storm, nearly a week ago are pretty amazing, but they aren’t perfect. As the storm moves up the coast, it will carry warm air from the Gulf on its east side. On its west side it will suck down cold air for the north. Thus we will likely be left with a storm that dumps snow on Asheville, North Carolina at the same time as drenching rain on Portland, Maine. This is what will happen if what the models are saying right now comes to pass. Most of Vermont would get a burst of snow and various wintry mix conditions Tuesday night, then a quick downpour of an inch or two of rain Wednesday, then a quick blast of a couple of inches of snow and quickly dropping temperatures on Wednesday night. Conditions during this busy travel time will likely be awful, especially Wednesday night as the wet roads freeze and get snow dumped on them.

But… and this is a big but… Vermont is right under the contrast between warm and cold air. If the storm moves just 200 miles east of the current forecast – a not unlikely error with such a storm – Montpelier will likely be digging out from over a foot of snow on Thanksgiving. If the storm goes 200 miles further west of the forecast, we will get mainly rain, and even more of it than forecast. The cold air may arrive too late to replace the light coating of snow that the rain would wash away.

All in all, the most likely result is that on Thanksgiving the view out the window will look much the same – two inches or so of snow – only it will have a bunch of ice under it. Another cold blast is forecast, so any of the ice blown out of the river by the high water that would come with this downpour will quickly reform. And while it is unlikely that winter is now kicking in fully (we often don’t really start building up significant snowpack until around the second half of December, at least in the last decade or two).

The rain that is likely along the coastal Northeast is welcome. The area has been very dry lately and is experiencing drought conditions, even though a few hundred miles to the north Vermont has been rather wet. For this reason, the rain also is unlikely to cause significant flooding, though there may be some minor flooding in parts of Vermont, associated with heavy rain hitting partially frozen ground, light snowmelt runoff, and very small ice jams.

I’ll definitely have an update as things progress. If you have travel plans, watch the situation closely and take care. I’ll thankfully be weathering this storm at home.

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Settling In for the Winter and a Sweet Surprise

After a fairly warm October, November in Vermont has been relatively cold. We’ve already had a taste of snow, though it didn’t accumulate very much, and also two days in a row with high temperatures below freezing.

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(not as icy as it looks)

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My commute on some days – I Probably won’t be able to walk up this once the snow gets deep.

A little frozen river formed in my gutter system that I use to divert water to the rain garden. Of course I got out the food coloring, for the first time this year.

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Last Saturday was the start of rifle hunting season for deer – pretty much a state holiday in Vermont. I’d like to learn to deer hunt, mainly for the meat… but with buying a house and all I wasn’t able to get set up to do that, so instead we rented a brush cutter and cut our field. The day was sunny and unusually warm (high 50s), a welcome setup for doing this sort of work.

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It was neat to walk over every bit of our land, and to get a feel for what laid under the tall grass and goldenrod. We’ve planted a few trees and berry plants in the field, and what isn’t used to produce food or grow a tree will be left as a pollinator/wildlife field. By waiting to mow until the goldenrod and milkweed went to seed we hope to increase the abundance of those plants over the orchardgrass which is good for making hay but not good for much else.

When it was my turn to take a break I was laying in the sun when I noticed a drip of water plop down under the nearby sugar maple tree. The sky was clear, so I was surprised to see another drop soon after. Where was this water coming from? In fact, it turned out it was coming from the maple tree, at a place where i’d sawed a small low-hanging limb off the tree. The sap was flowing! I wondered at first if it was an odd effect of climate change or if something was wrong with the tree. But, in fact, I learned from a bit of quick research that maple sap does indeed run in fall. It would probably be a stress to the tree to tap it heavily before winter, but since this was just one limb, it hopefully won’t harm the tree. We put a container under the cut limb end. The sap ran both days this weekend, and both evenings we boiled a little pot of sap to get a few mouthfuls of syrup.

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It was delicious and a bit different than the maple syrup you can buy – each tree tastes different, they say, and although pure maple syrup is extremely delicious, rarely do you get to taste the differences in individual trees.

This morning at 5:30 AM a blast of strong wind and heavy rain blew through… the same storm system that brought those terrible tornadoes to the Midwest. No severe weather here, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit of ominousness in the storm, knowing what sort of destruction it had wrought the day before. The storm blew on through, but temperatures didn’t drop too fast afterwards. Tonight that may change and we could get another dusting of snow.

By the end of the weekend we could have several inches of snow and possibly even single-digit temperatures. Winter is about to kick in for real.

The Speculative Fiction of Winter Outlooks

Winter is coming. While October dithered between relatively mild nights and warm sunny days, November has meant business. We’ve had our warm days, mostly associated with warm storms, but we’ve also had many cold nights. At least twice it has been in the upper teens. One day we had a light snow flurry, and for a few days at the end of October there was snow in most of the mountain areas.

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Early November is a time for not just preparation, but speculation as well. Since as early as late September there have been multiple winter outlooks published by different sources. These forecasts, many of which contradict each other, are fun to watch but are often wrong. Last year the forecasts for Vermont were especially vague. The winter turned out slightly snowier and slightly warmer than average, from what I recall. The previous winter all of the forecasts busted. They called for a cold and snowy winter, and the winter was instead exceptionally warm and snowless. So these forecasts should all be taken with a grain of salt.

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(Vermont forecast: The winter will feel freakin’ cold as anything, even if it’s warmer than ‘average’, because Vermont is really cold.)

The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a very cold winter, especially the second half of the winter. (Though again… ‘bitterly cold and full of snow’ even describes a ‘warm’ Vermont winter). Accu-Weather predicts above average snow in northern Vermont but a slow start to winter in the southern part of the state. The Weather Channel has a similar forecast except for a warm December, along with a bunch of annoying audio ads. (a side note… why would anyone want a news video when they could read the same text five times as fast in peace?) NOAA’s typically vague forecast calls for above normal temperatures for the first part of the winter but equal odds of warmer or colder than average conditions later in the winter. Equal odds are given for a wet, dry, or average amount of precipitation. And if you don’t like those, there are more forecasts to choose from too.

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Some people like to use Woolly bear caterpillars to predict the weather. These have been abundant in Vermont this fall, but their supposed forecast power comes from the width of their bands, not their abundance. And because they were so abundant, individuals of just about any stripe size were showing up. So, if you believe the caterpillars. winter will be mild at our house and extremely severe a half mile up the road. That’s in the direction of the local cross country ski area so maybe that would be a desirable forecast, if unlikely to be true.

The honest truth is there isn’t much to go by in terms of El Nino or other large scale climactic patterns. Because of a general global trend towards warmer temperatures over time, warmer than average is more likely than colder than average, and we’ve seen that over the last several years. On the other hand there is slightly more Arctic sea ice than the last year or two, and the sun has been fairly inactive (sometimes correlated with cooler weather) so those may at least partially negate the trend of above average temperatures and lead to an ‘average’ temperature winter. Precipitation is even harder – the trend has been for wetter conditions in New England in the last few decades, and since snow is determined by both precipitation and temperature those factors can be very hard to parse out. Ultimately a few hundred miles of difference in a storm track is the determinant between a snow-melting January deluge, a massive blizzard, or cold dry conditions. And, while I love the snow, we now pay by the plow day to get our long driveway cleared, and heating isn’t cheap either, so mild winters do also have their upsides. As is always the case with Vermont weather… whatever happens, it will be interesting. And, of course, my least favorite feature of winter – the long, long nights, is not affected by climate change nor fluctuations in sea surface temperatures.

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There’s something about the texture of shapes in these silhouettes that just says ‘cold’… and sure enough it was 18 degrees the next morning.

And for those of you in California… I haven’t forgotten about you, but there just isn’t much to say. Like everyone I hope the latest ‘drought’ ends, southern California gets copious rain, and the Sierras get a good snowpack. It probably won’t be as dry as last year, but without any ENSO (El Nino/La Nina) signal, it’s hard to say much.

As always, I’ll have updates on any notable storms or other weather events.