Where's all the snow?

snow-free grass 2012-01-05

Yep, something's definitely missing.

This winter has been... unusual. November was really warm. And December? Yeah, not really that cold, either.

But the most conspicuously unusual thing about this winter is the snow. Or, rather, the fact that there's been almost no snow. It's like winter is falling down on the job.

So, what's going on? We bounced a few questions to WNYT meteorologist Jason Gough -- and he had answers about historical snow totals, the subtropical jet stream, rare weather, the unreliability of weather memory, and his prognostication for how much snow we might end up with...

We looked up the numbers today and the Albany area has gotten a little more than 6 inches of snow this season -- and most of that was before December 1. How unusual is this sort of total at this point?

Lack of snow in any one winter month isn't all that unusual. If you look at the top ten least snowiest December/January/Februarys, there are some low totals.

What makes this winter most unusual in that regard is that we had more snow in October than we did in November and December (and what looks to be through at least mid January), which is a first in recorded history (1884).

So what's happening? Why isn't it snowing?

Everyone talks about La Nina and El Nino, which do influence winters in other parts of the country. We are sort of exempt from those Pacific temperature anomalies because most of our snow comes from coastal storms, which are too small to be influenced on a seasonal scale.

That said, our current weather pattern is flat stubborn... we've been under its influence since October. We'll have a period of mild weather followed by a shot of cold, then a rebound back to mild. We're currently on the way back to mild as we speak, relatively speaking.

When the polar (northern) jet stream dips south, it provides not only cold but some potential energy to get a storm going. This is particularly true when the polar jet "phases" with the subtropical (southern) jet. If they bend/fold in the right spot, a storm rides up the coast and hammers us. But, with the infrequent visits by the cold, we have less of a shot at a snow storm. The subtropical jet has been by far the dominant feature not only for us, but for the rest of the country. Today is seeing 50s and 60s in the central and northern US, setting all-time January high temperatures. Many areas of the country are less than 20 percent of average snow, most notably places like Buffalo and the Sierra Nevadas, where they measure snow in feet, not inches.

There seems to have been lot of talk over the last few years that, for whatever reason -- global warming, luck, Heat Miser/Snow Miser -- we're seeing odd weather more often. Even Andrew Cuomo mentioned it in his State of the State speech ("One hundred year floods now happen every two years here..."). What's the conversation among meteorologists been like?

Meteorologists tend to resist the notion of "odd" weather. I suppose we prefer the word "rare" instead. Weather is weather, some occurs more frequently than others.

A storm like Irene, as devastating it was, is not unheard of. The Northeast has a coastline and it is susceptible to tropical systems. October snow is not unheard of. Even the 1998 F-3 Mechanicville tornado is not unheard of. All are rare, but not odd. I hope we don't see anything like those 2 events of 2011 and those '98 tornadoes again for a long, long time but I promise you, they'll all happen again. The only question is if they happen next year or not for another 150 years.

I hear people say all the time about "snow when they were kids being up to the window sills," etc. but memories tend to get distorted over time. Psychology plays a role in weather, real or perceived. It happened to me, and I do this for a living. About 10 years ago, I could have sworn that we had a huge snow storm on Thanksgiving in the mid 80s, when I was in my mid teens growing up in Albany. We had 6 inches in 1985, hardly huge for late November.

What's your local snow outlook for the rest of this season?

I don't much care for outlooks because they really are guesses for our area. I will say there is evidence of a pattern change coming as we head into the 2nd half of January (hey, it has to change at some point, especially because it's been with us for so long). That doesn't mean we'll get pounded with snow, it just means we'll have more of an opportunity to.

If I had to put a prognostication in, I'd say we'll end up with somewhere in the mid 40-inch range for this winter and most of it will come in 2 storms. The rest will be a few dribs and drabs...2 inches here, 3 inches there. We'll see what happens.

This interview was conducted via email. It's been lightly edited.

Earlier on AOA:
+ The best November ever?
+ Sympathy for the weatherman


My first NY winter ('91-'92) was pretty much very similar to this. I think we got just over a couple feet total. It is funny that people expect a very set pattern of weather.

SHHHHHH!! Quiet!!! Don't jinx this!

I see someone has been reading the Farmer's Almanac.

Heck, I didn't even know we got six inches of snow this year. The weekend before Halloween we got a sloppy inch or so (that's all we got in Albany proper, anyhow), and after that a series of dustings.

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