NOAA’s winners and losers in its winter weather forecast

Outlook map 2015 temperaturesIf you live in New England, or anywhere across the northern tier of the contiguous U.S., expect a slightly warmer winter with above-average precipitation. That’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center, which issued its US Winter Outlook report today showing what to expect for the 2015-2016 winter season. Most of this can be attributed to a strong El Ni√±o that has taken hold across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, a natural phenomenon where sea surface temperatures are unusually warm for an extended period.

But a strong El Ni√±o is not the only factor determining NOAA’s seasonal divinations. According to Mike Halpert, Deputy Director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, “Cold-air outbreaks and snow storms will likely occur at times this winter.” Which is what happens in winter unless you live in Key West. But forecasting the frequency, number and intensity of winter storms can’t be “predicted on a seasonal timescale.” They are also predicting that the southern tier of the contiguous U.S. will have cooler and wetter weather.

NOAA also notes that other factors that usually play a role in winter weather include the Arctic Oscillation (think Polar Vortex), which can creep past the Arctic circle and “penetrate deep into the the South” and affect the length and intensity of Nor’easters on the East Coast. When the Arctic Oscillation (AO) is in a negative phase, frigid polar air can travel as far south as Florida. Most people refer to these oscillations as the Polar Vortex, which can last for days or even weeks.

AOs were first identified in 1998, and appear like a “zonally symmetric seesaw” that buttresses up against the Jet Stream. These natural events interact and affect weather across the planet, allowing meteorologists to create long-term forecasts based on past weather events under similar conditions. It’s unclear if NOAA takes into account solar cycles (minimums and maximums), active volcanic eruptions (which release tiny particulates into the upper atmosphere that block out the sun), microbes that feed on decaying organic matter (which emit nearly 10 times more carbon dioxide than fossil fuel emissions), and other natural variables that play active roles in influencing our climate.

Outlook map Precip 2015 2F 2000Still, NOAA’s precipitation outlook shows “wetter-than-average conditions” will likely occur in the southernmost part of the country, “from central and southern California, across Texas, to Florida, and up the East Coast to southern New England.” NOAA expects above-average precipitation to occur in southeastern Alaska. They also predict “drier-than-average conditions” for Hawaii, for central and western Alaska, for parts of the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, and for “areas near the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley.”

NOAA’s prognostications are also indicating above-average temperatures for much of the west and the “northern half of the contiguous United States.” They expect temperatures to also be above average in Alaska and much of Hawaii and “below-average temperatures in the southern Plains and Southeast.”

The big question of whether California’s drought will persist into 2016 shows “some improvement is likely in central and southern California by the end of January,” but not enough to end the drought. California, however, may find some statewide relief during February and March. NOAA is also forewarning that the drought affecting the southwest and Southern Plains will likely dissipate, but drought conditions may “persist in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.”

Even though NOAA expects drought conditions to ease up by end of winter, Halpert says it won’t help the water-deprived state (NOAA’s about as cheery as a cold, rainy day). “One season of above-average rain and snow is unlikely to remove four years of drought.” That’s because “California would need close to twice its normal rainfall to get out of drought and that’s unlikely.” But Halpert also admits that forecasting precipitation such as seasonal snowfall amounts are “dependent upon the strength and track of winter storms, which are generally not predictable more than a week in advance.”

In other words, while Halpert admits that NOAA can’t predict how much snow and rain California will get to alleviate its four-year-long drought, he’s confident in saying that even above-average precipitation won’t alleviate the drought. Another example of the ever-shrinking line between fact and augury. NOAA does say there is a greater than 40 and 50 percent chance of above-average precipitation for central and southern California, respectively.

As reported here in mid-August, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting the exact opposite, with another brutally cold winter packed with lots of snow and frigid temperatures. Over the last two centuries, the Almanac has been more right than wrong in its predictions, but some meteorologists call that luck and not science. As the saying goes, only time will tell if the Almanac’s overall accuracy can compete against NOAA’s. Neither NOAA nor the Old Farmer’s Almanac foresaw last year’s brutally cold, snowy winter that brought much of New England, and the country, to its knees.