Tracking our incredible snow drought…and whether it’ll soon end

It isn’t that snowflakes haven’t flown across the northern Cumberland Plateau this winter, and there have been winters when that was the case.

But what makes Winter 2019-2020 incredible isn’t the lack of snow this winter, but how it’s a continuing theme of recent winters. Simply put, we’re in a snow drought.

So far in 2019-2020, there has been zero snow recorded in Oneida by the National Weather Service. Now, keep in mind that snowfall can be spotty when it’s light, and this is measuring snow only at one location (the Oneida Water Treatment Plant at the intersection of Industrial Lane and West 3rd Avenue, to be specific). There was a light snow in November and two more in December — totaling as much as 2-3 inches in some locations. So the NWS’s numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all … but when it comes to the official record, they’re all that matter.

So, officially, we’ve had no snow in Oneida this year. And, officially, we had only a trace of snow in Oneida last year. We also had no snow in Winter 2016-2017, and only 2 inches of snow in Winter 2017-2018. To find the last winter it really snowed in Oneida, you have to go back to Winter 2015-2016, when we had 10 inches of snow in January. The winter before that, we almost went without measurable snowfall, until a drastic pattern change in mid February that resulted in 7 inches of snow the second half of that month.

What gives? There is more precipitation falling in the Cumberlands now than ever before. The 4 wettest years on record have occurred in the last 6 years, an astounding statistic. Yet only 2 of those 6 years have featured average or above-average snowfall. One key reason why is that we’ve been warmer while we’ve been wetter. But while there’s no denying that our winters today are milder than they once were, the differences aren’t extreme. January 2017 was the third-warmest on record in Oneida, February 2018 was the warmest on record, while February 2017 was the third-warmest on record and February 2019 was the fourth-warmest on record, and December 2015 was the warmest on record. Still, there has been ample cold air…but it has presented in different ways, and mother nature hasn’t threaded the needle for winter weather in this region very often the past several years.

Unfortunately for the snow-lovers, if you’re looking for that to change this winter, you may be disappointed. I posted a few days ago about a coming pattern change, and how it was going to be colder — but also that there were no signs yet of it being snowier. And, so far, that’s still the case.

The extreme warmth that we saw in the first half of January is certainly gone. If the month ended right now, it would be the warmest January on record in Oneida. But the second half is going to be much colder than the first half. But still not that cold. And, with the arrival of colder air, the active storm pattern is also slowing down.

A rare (for this winter) outbreak of arctic air is still headed our way for the first of next week. After we warm up Saturday (so it can rain!), much colder air is going to settle in by the end of the weekend. We will be stuck in the mid 30s on Sunday. On Monday, we likely won’t get out of the 20s, after a low in the teens. And it now looks like we will hit single digits on Tuesday morning before we finally rise (slightly) above freezing Tuesday afternoon.

That’s a pretty impressive cold shot. But it’s still just a transient cold shot. The warm-up will begin quickly, and we’ll be well into the 40s by Wednesday and maybe back into the 50s as soon as Thursday.

After that, the next storm system will impact our area around one week from now: January 24-25. This one could end as a little snow, as cold air comes crashing in on the back side of the departing system, but the level of cold air isn’t nearly as impressive as the cold blast we’re going to see in a couple of days, and the amount of snow we receive — if any — probably won’t be anything to write home about.

From there, it had once appeared that another round of cold air would settle across our region on the last couple of days of January, but that is now looking unlikely, as it looks like average to slightly above-average temperatures will be in store as January ends and February begins. So, for now, there’s only one very slight chance of snow showing up in the next two weeks, and no real threat of a significant winter storm.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the threat of going through winter without a pattern change that would lead to wintry weather of any sort. We’ve certainly seen a pattern change, but we’re still not hardly where we need to be if you’re wanting to see sustained cold and snow chances. The major teleconnections (the NAO, the AO and the PNA, which I won’t go into further detail on in this post because we’ve talked about them before) look like they’ll continue to trend slightly more favorable for winter weather in the eastern U.S., though they’re still leaving a lot to be desired. With the MJO continuing to show signs of progression as well, I wouldn’t totally write off February. The pattern needs to evolve some more, but if it does, it could be that this will be a repeat of 2015. Remember, that winter featured no snow, either … until the middle of February. But once Ol’ Man Winter showed up, he did so with a vengeance. We had an ice storm in western Scott County, more than a half-foot of snow spread out across several events, and record cold temperatures for the month of February. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, just that it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Even so, we’re now moving quickly out of the heart of winter. The days are getting longer, the sun angle is getting higher in the sky, and the average temperatures are on their way up. We can, and have, recorded serious snowfalls after the calendar has flipped to February and even March. But, from a climatological perspective, the chances of appreciable snowfall begin to decrease dramatically as we move through the month of February.

So, right now, we can say with near certainty that it probably isn’t going to snow (not a lot) in the next 2 weeks. By that time, we’ll be in early February. And if we get there and we can still say with certainty that it’s not going to snow in the 2 weeks after that, it’s going to be getting awfully close to time to stick a fork in this winter, and chalk it up alongside other recent winters as our snow drought continues. In the meantime, we wait and see if the pattern continues to evolve into one that is more favorable for winter weather as we head towards February.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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