Words on Weather — December 10, 2009



I want to thank the folks at The Rockford Squire for giving me the opportunity to write about two of my favorite subjects, weather and climate. Mark Twain once said, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” That is the best summary of the distinction between the two I have heard, and I am sure rarely a day goes by when you don’t hear a comment about one or the other. It is my hope that maybe I can shed a little light on both subjects.

I am a firm believer in another Mark Twain quote, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Too often it seems, especially on the subject of “climate change,” you don’t hear all the facts, frequently just the politically correct ones. So it is with this in mind—and freely admitting my own biases will enter in to anything I write—I hope to present information you may not have heard. I believe the best way to be educated about a subject is to hear both sides of an argument.

WordsWeatherGraphic5009The first thing I want to write about is the expected weather for this upcoming winter. You may have heard there is an El Niño occurring in the Pacific Ocean again this year, which means there is a pool of warmer-than-normal surface water located in the central Pacific Ocean. You can see in the graphic from NOAA there is an area of water along the Equator in the central Pacific Ocean between two and three degrees warmer than normal. This is a classic moderate El Niño look.

It seems as if the popular belief has been if we are in an El Niño pattern, the winter will be warm, and if we are in a La Niña pattern, the winter will be cold. However, the truth is much more complicated than that. All El Niños and La Niñas are not the same.

The exact location of the warm water, how much warmer than normal the water is, and whether the water temperatures peak in winter or in spring make a big difference in the downstream weather over the United States for the coming winter. There are other ocean circulations in the Arctic and north Atlantic that play a role too, but what you really want to know is how much snow you are going to have to shovel and will your heating bills be higher or lower than average. Obviously, there isn’t anyone around who can tell you for sure what will happen, and I’ve often called the attempt of making a long-range winter forecast a fool’s errand, but here is my guess. We may have a good laugh over it come April.

The past couple of winters have produced over 100 inches of snowfall in the Rockford-Grand Rapids area. The average for Grand Rapids is 72 inches and maybe a couple of inches less for Rockford. I think this year we will see snowfall totals much closer to average, perhaps around 70 inches in Grand Rapids, so you won’t be shoveling as much. I think the storm track for most of this winter will likely be too far south to give us another 100-inch season.

It also seems a good bet to me there will be frequent high-pressure systems over the northern plains and southern Canada, which will keep us fairly cold and produce good lake-effect snows. However, with highs in this location, the wind direction here during lake effect events is usually from the northwest, which means the heaviest lake snows will fall to the west and southwest of Rockford. If the pattern does indeed shape up this way, I think temperatures will run near to a little below average for the three winter months of December, January and February.

However the winter turns out, as my friend Joe Bastardi from AccuWeather is fond of saying, “Enjoy the weather, it is the only weather you’ve got.”

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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