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A very different winter ahead

  • SIMA
- Posted: December 16, 2016
By Frank Lombardo

Remember last winter? If not, you’re in good company. There really wasn’t much snow to recall. More than 50% of the winter’s snowfall across the Midwest came in one pre-Thanksgiving storm. The initial hopes of an active winter diminished quickly, however, as later storms failed to produce lasting accumulations. Montreal, Toronto and Calgary in Canada and Anchorage, Alaska, all experienced snowfall totals significantly below normal. Buffalo missed its seasonal mark by over 40 inches. The most significant blizzard of the season came in January, targeting the mid-Atlantic and Northeast after a record, tropical-like December. If not for that storm, snowfall totals in most of the eastern states would have been 50% to 75% below normal.

Looking ahead to 2016-17 winter

Snow Business Weather (600x449)

Snow Business Temps (600x448)

The near-record strength El Niño that prevailed last winter and was associated with warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean is gone. We initially believed this would lead to the development of the La Niña phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  However, earlier this fall the cooling trend began to stall, and it now appears more likely that we will transition to a neutral El Niño/La Niña condition that slightly favors La Niña. The resulting neutrality increases the influence of other seasonal and medium range predictors such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), the Arctic Oscillation (AO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). At this time, all three indices favor a much more active winter and a colder winter season (at least to start) across much of the eastern two-thirds of North America.  

In addition to these predictors, our long-range team reviews historical atmospheric and weather data to compare and best match previous conditions to those expected for the coming winter.

Overall, look for a snowier and colder winter in most areas of the Great Plains through New England with an increased tendency of mixed icy events along the Mid-Atlantic coast and the lower Ohio Valley. Most contractors east of the Rockies should see increased activity from snow and ice events as well as post-storm services. Here’s how we see this season setting up:

Through December 2016
  • Polar Vortex heads south, but its staying power looks limited.
  • For most of the U.S. and Southern Canada, snow threats will trend toward interior, mountainous and Lake Effect-prone areas.
  • Cold is likely to become increasingly prevalent, especially east of the Rockies, by the third week of December. Some record cold is possible.
  • Snow is likely to be at or above normal from northern New England through the Great Lakes into the Plains and perhaps northern Rockies. This may come as a result of several smaller storms.
January to mid-February 2017
  • More temperature fluctuations are expected. The West will see mostly mild conditions.
  • An overall active pattern is likely. Borderline snowfall areas (mid-Atlantic, Southern Ohio Valley, etc.) may see a lot of rain and/or ice events.
  • Dry, mild conditions are expected for the Central and Southern Rockies, and the western mountains.
  • The best potential for above-normal snow is in the Upper Plains, Great Lakes and northern New England. South of those areas should expect mixed precipitation events.
  • The Pacific Northwest will likely see fairly wet conditions, with mountain snow a bit higher in elevation than normal.
Mid-February to March 2017
  • Cold tries to make a late comeback.
  • Best potential for snow is from the central Plains eastward into New England.
  • Dry air may limit the amount of snow in the northern Plains/western Great Lakes.
  • Watch the potential for an East Coast snowstorm late February/early March.

Winter harkens back to 1983-84
According to WeatherWorks Meteorologist Ken Elliott, this season is shaping up to mirror the winter of 1983-84, particularly with respect to sea surface temperatures. If this winter sets up as predicted, the Plains and midwestern United States will be in for a rough ride.

“Overall it was a cold winter for a majority of the country, especially across the Plains and Midwest during December. In fact, some parts of the Northern Plains were close to 20°below normal for the month,” he says. “Not only did Chicago have one of its most frigid Decembers on record, but the city also had its coldest Christmas ever: an average daily temperature of 11° F!”

The Great Lakes and Ohio Valley also measured a good deal of snow for the season, with most spots 10 to 20 inches above normal. While there were no blockbuster storms, several late-season events helped most of the Northeast finish with snowfall near normal average.

Dec1983-Temp-Anomalies (600x393)
Many areas of the country faced brutal temperatures in the 1983-84 winter. Map Source: WeatherWorks, Inc.
Frank Lombardo is president and CEO of WeatherWorks Inc. Contact him at
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