Words on Weather & Climate — October 21, 2010

A La Niña Winter

Can you believe we are approaching the end of October already? Last year I was able to golf until December 2. That is not likely to happen this year. It appears to me as if prolonged cold weather and probably snowflakes will close the golf courses much earlier than last year.

An El Niño weather pattern was the rule for the fall into spring last year but this year a strong La Niña looks likely, which should give much of the United States a very different winter than the past one.

What is called a La Niña event occurs when the sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the Equator from the dateline east to the west coast of South America are more than 1 degree Celsius below normal. This is the opposite of an El Niño event where temperatures are above normal. Both El Niños and La Niñas usually begin to develop in the late summer and last into the following spring. However, some prolonged episodes have lasted 2 years and even as long as 3-4 years. While their occurrence can be quite irregular, El Niño and La Niña develop every 3-5 years on average and they have noticeably different effects on the weather here in the United States.

The sea surface temperatures affect where the jet stream is located, which in turn determines the path of storms. The forecast problem, of course, is in the details but you can see from the graphic the average conditions that exist. Here in the Lower Great Lakes, it is usually warmer and drier during an El Niño year than during a La Niña year. There are exceptions but in general this is true, which probably means a colder and snowier winter here than last year when snowfall was right at average with temperatures about two degrees above average.

La Niñas generally produce two distinct storm tracks across the country shown in this graphic.

Our area gets Alberta Clippers, which produce lake effect snow and storms from the southern plains, which can give us a lot of snow, or sometimes a wintry mix of snow, freezing rain and rain if the low center comes far enough north. It could get mild and messy at times followed by strong cold outbreaks and lake effect snows. I doubt that it will be a boring winter.

For those of you who head south for the winter, you are going to like this winter a whole lot better than the last one. I’m sure you remember the cold and windy conditions many days along the Gulf Coast with snowflakes into central Florida. Not this year. It will be much warmer. In contrast, from the northern plains into the Pacific Northwest and up into Alaska, it may be a winter remembered for brutal cold and significant storms.

I guess the best attitude about the weather for this coming winter is summed up by a friend of mine from Penn State who always says, “Enjoy the weather, it’s the only weather you’ve got.” 

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting televistion 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 Centennnial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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