As winter officially begins, meteorologist predicts ‘normal’ weather
It’s a solstice Saturday. And a winter weekend.
According to astronomy and weather experts, the winter solstice occurs today at 12:11 p.m. in the Northern Hemisphere.
The solstice, which means the earth is at its farthest point away from the sun, means the shortest day of the year — in terms of sunlight — has arrived. It also means winter has officially started. So has speculation and long-range forecasts regarding weather for the next three months.
Hugh Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, believes status quo are key words for the days to come.
“In a nutshell, the trends show this will be a near ‘normal’ winter and I put normal in quotes because there is no such thing as a normal winter,” Johnson said. “Climatologically, it looks like it will be pretty close to average as far as snowfall and temperatures and precipitation.”
That means about 60 inches of snow and daytime temperatures between 12 and 31 degrees. Johnson thinks it might be a little colder than usual; he said he’s been seeing a lot of cold air moving into the far north.
“It seems it really got cold in Canada this year, maybe more so than normal, and we’ve had this a couple winters now,” Johnson said. “Two winters ago it was cold, but the difference was all the cold air was being spilled on the other side of the globe. Now it’s being spilled on our side, so based on that I think we could be normal to slightly below.”
Johnson said there is no concern about “El Nino” or “La Nina” weather patterns that bring warmer and cooler waters, respectively, to the Pacific Ocean. This year, a neutral “La Nada” pattern is expected. “It basically means ‘nothing’ in Spanish,” Johnson said.
Surprise in store?
But while Johnson expects a “normal” winter, he is also expecting something out of the ordinary during January, February or March.
“Every winter has a surprise, has something it will be remembered for,” Johnson said. “Two years ago, we had very little winter, had hardly any snow. But we had that big storm in October that went south of here that was a legacy. Last year it was that storm in February that just missed our area. We got six to 10 inches, Long Island got three feet.”
Staff members from the New Hampshire-based Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has forecast weather since its inception in 1792, have also been checking indicators such as solar activity and ocean-atmosphere patterns in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Old Farmer expects below normal temperatures and above normal snowfall for much of the U.S. this winter.
“You folks are very close to the line of cold and snowy and snowy and cold,” said Almanac Editor Janice Stillman. “That means above normal precipitation and colder than normal temperatures or below normal precip and above normal temps. It kind of depends which direction the wind is going to come from when it reaches you folks.”
The Old Farmer knows dozens of weather-related folklore stories. Stillman said one story says if cows are bellowing on a winter night, snow can soon be expected. Another says winter conditions will abound if field mice dig burrows facing the south — they want to get as much southern sun as possible.
“When the onion skin is very thin, a mild winter’s coming in,” Stillman said. “When the onion skin is thick and tough, coming winter’s cold and rough. There are literally hundreds of them. Folks used those kinds of indicators at the time because that was all they had.”
Modern Almanac forecasters rely on three scientific disciplines.
“We use solar science, which is the study of the activity on the sun, in particular sunspots,” Stillman said. “And we use climatology. We see what was happening on the sun in terms of sunspot activity centuries ago and what the conditions were on Earth at that time. We use meteorology, which is more in line with what you see and hear on the 6 and 11 o’clock news in terms of jet stream, ocean temperatures and oscillation and land temperatures.”
Stillman said people reading the Almanac know New Year’s Eve might be a night to stay in — a snowstorm is predicted.
Johnson said he could not comment on the Almanac. “We’re the Weather Service,” he said. “We just don’t comment on that kind of thing.”
Johnson said people who enjoy winter should remember winters past. There’s always a chance a monster storm will become a weather event.
“Usually in a decade we get a winter where we get pummelled,” Johnson said. “The 2010-11 winter was a wicked winter for us. Then the next winter was a wimpy one. Then last year was closer to normal. It was still a bit milder than normal and a little less snow, but it was closer.”
People who enjoy locking their doors, stocking their pantries and filling their fireplaces — all in anticipation of a big storm on the way — may have something to look forward to in 2014.
“There’s always a chance,” Johnson said. “In some ways, we’re probably kind of due for that kind of thing. We haven’t had a blockbuster here locally. I think you have to go back to the Valentine’s Day storm, that was probably the last one, Feb. 14, 2007. We had 16 inches at the office, I had 20 inches at my house in Albany. Most people around us had 20. And then you go west of here and they got like three feet. Once a decade or so, you at least get one of those.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at email@example.com.