At some point, the undeniable must be admitted. It’s undeniable that Winter 2018-2019 has defied the experts. And it’s looking increasingly likely that winter, for all intent and purpose, is over.
Declaring winter over could mean one of two things. One would be that spring is here, and it’s going to be warm from here on out. Spring definitely isn’t here, and it certainly won’t be warm the rest of the way. Two would be that the brutally cold air and snow that most of us associate with winter is over, and that is looking more and more certain.
If winter were truly over, we’d see temps like we saw much of last week — daily highs in the 60s and nighttime lows well above freezing. Sadly, that’s not the case. We’re in the mid 40s today, may be colder than that tomorrow, and we’ll be cool for much of the next 10 days.
But if you’re waiting on the cold and snow that we’ve all been waiting on since December . . . well, I probably wouldn’t hold my breath.
Coming into this winter, I would have bet — and I mean bet literal, green money — that we were going to be cold and snowy. The signs all lined up that way. And when it began to become apparent in late December that a sudden stratospheric warming event was going to cause the polar vortex to extend southward, that just seemed to confirm the idea.
Yet, all we have to show for it is a single night in the single digits (it dropped to 9 degrees back on January 22). There was almost no snow; officially, the NWS recorded a trace of snow in Oneida on four occasions during the month of January, and only a trace for the month.
Even when the polar vortex visited at the end of January, the result was unimpressive. The low temp was 17 on January 30 and 12 on January 31, and the high temp reached the lower 20s both days.
Once the polar air retreated, a pattern change took place. Southeast ridging has delivered milder air to the Mid-South, with a trough over the western U.S. That general setup — cold in the west, warm in the east — is going to be in place for at least the next couple of weeks.
I wrote back on January 31 that we would be warm for the first half of February, with a lot of signs pointing towards a return of the colder air in the second half of February. For that to happen, I said, the Madden-Julian Oscillation (a measurement of pressure anomalies in the tropics) would have to straighten itself out and move into phases more supportive of colder weather here in the Mid-South.
Here we are, trudging towards mid February, and that still hasn’t happened. To be sure, we’re going to see some intrusions of colder air from time to time; in fact, the GFS model is currently showing the potential for some snow showers or snow flurries next Saturday, one week from today, and we may see mostly below-normal temperatures for about a week. But the same model also brings temperatures in the mid 60s back by the end of the following week, around February 21. And, keep in mind, below-normal in late February doesn’t mean the same thing as below-normal in early January. Back then, normal was about 44 degrees. As of February 18, our normal high temperature in Oneida is 50 degrees — and it just keeps climbing after that as we move closer to the spring equinox.
At this point, declaring winter over is mostly a matter of hedging one’s bets. We are past winter’s prime-time. The equinox is just about six weeks a day and the sun is climbing higher in the sky every day. The higher that sun gets, the more trouble we have getting accumulating snow . . . especially accumulating snow that actually sticks around.
That isn’t to say that late-season surprises can’t happen. Every person reading this is thinking March ’93 without me even saying it. And there have been more recent examples of late-season snowstorms. But it’s rare. We had an inch of snow back in March 2010. Before that, the last time we saw accumulating snow in March was 2001, when we received 7.3 inches. Since 1971, Oneida hasn’t seen more than a trace of snow in April — and that hasn’t happened since 1996.
In the meantime, the general pattern of a trough in the west and ridging in the east is going to continue for the next 10-14 days. And that is not a pattern that’s conducive for cold and snow in the east. At all.
There are some signs that the Arctic Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation may tank as we get into late February, with ridging starting to build in the eastern Pacific. And the Madden-Julian Oscillation may progress to a more favorable winter pattern by that point, as well.
If all of those things line up, then we’re going to almost certainly be looking at a cold March here in the eastern U.S. That’s actually not to be unexpected. Mild, wet Februaries often lead to cold, dry Marches. And that’s just the thing: even if we see a cold March, will it correlate to snow? Probably not. Again, “cold” in March doesn’t mean the same thing as “cold” in January. Cold in March just means miserable, because we see temps in the 30s and 40s when we’re all ready for spring — too cold to go fishing or for the blooming season to get underway, but too warm for snow.
This is not what any of us expected as the winter season was knocking on our door. The 2017-2018 winter was relatively mild and snowless, and no one thought 2018-2019 would be even worse (from a snow-lover’s perspective). But it has been. The Scott County School System has used only two of its 13 built-in snow days; the Oneida Special School District has used just one. Both school systems will use three of those days for the time off this past week due to illness. But the point is that you have to go back a long, long ways (I’m not even sure how far back) to find a winter that saw school in session more during the winter season than it has been this year.