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.

4 thoughts on “The Speculative Fiction of Winter Outlooks

  1. F

    “So these forecasts should all be taken with a grain of salt.”

    Considering forecasters can’t do a week ahead with the accuracy and precision they like to present these things with, I’d have to agree. (Never mind later in the afternoon. Or where, exactly, the forecast is expected to be most accurate.)

  2. slowwatermovement Post author

    Neat video! I’m glad people are working on that stuff in Santa Barbara, I didn’t see much of it when I lived there several years ago.

    You may get some rain in the next few days. Not a droughtbuster though. Just a cutoff low – those are unpredictable and could be a bust. But maybe a surprise and some extra rain, too.

  3. Pingback: 2014-2015 Winter Forecast Roundup | Slow Water Movement

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