A Winter for the Record Books

February 28, 2017
A Winter for the Record Books
Dr. Ryan Maue and WeatherBell.com

As I write this, winter 2016–2017 has been mild across nearly all of the country, with above-normal temperatures and below-normal snowfall being the rule in most locations.

This is generally in agreement with The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s long range forecast for this winter with the most significant exception being the heavy precipitation that fell across all of California. While we did forecast rainfall to be above normal across northern California, we forecast below-normal rain in the central and southern portions of the state and we did not forecast the above-normal snow that fell in the mountains.

This anomaly required a closer look at the historical correlations on which we base our predictions.

We correctly forecast that a weak La Niña would occur throughout most of this past winter and, based on the historic record, this usually means that rainfall will be below normal across central and southern California.

You may recall that last winter, 2015–16, we correctly forecast that most of California would have below-normal precipitation, despite the fact that we were incorrect in our forecast that there would not be a strong El Niño.

(See definitions for La Niña and El Niño.)

The historical correlations between the phase of ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) and California weather have been very strong, although not perfect. But since this is the second consecutive winter in which they have not followed this historical correlation, I searched recent research studies on this phenomenon for an answer.

While I found nothing definite, there is speculation that there are distinct types of El Niños and La Niñas that affect the weather differently. There is also concern among some scientists and/or meteorologists that global climate change is altering the relationship between ENSO and weather.

Predicting the Unpredictable

This would seem to be another example of our struggle in recent years to incorporate the effects of global climate change into the Almanac’s forecasting methodology, which has traditionally been based upon the precepts that the Sun controls Earth’s weather and that the use of solar cycles as a predictive tool enables us to forecast Earth’s weather a year or more in advance.

Once we have determined what the solar activity is likely to be, we find analogues where solar cycles were similar and forecast the future weather to also be similar.

However, two factors have made our forecasts especially difficult to make in recent years: (1) the last time activity in the solar cycle was this low, we did not yet have widespread reliable weather records, so we are forced to extrapolate and speculate on the past weather activity in seeking our analogues; and (2) with the climate changing, the effects that the Sun has on Earth’s weather patterns seem to be changing from past patterns.

We will continue to study the changing weather patterns and relationships and what they mean for future weather. Our goal is to bring you the most accurate long range forecasts possible and to maintain, or even improve upon, our traditional 80 percent accuracy rate.


Reader Comments

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Woolly bear

My kids have caught 6 in as many days and they have all been been almost all black with a a ring or two of orange. We are in Maryland, guess it's gonna be a rough winter.

Possible 3rd factor with difficulty predicting recent weather?

Could it be that we are being naive assuming that there are only these two factors affecting the outcome of your weather predictions recently? Anytime I am trying to figure out why something abnormal is happening, I've always asked one question and then backtracked from the problem until I come up with my answer. The question is simply...- What, in this scenario, has been different leading up to said problem. The answer, if one is completely truthful, is usually pretty obvious. I've not thought much about weather prediction, but while reading this article I asked my simple question. The two factors y'all came up with have certainly made that process much more difficult. But I believe another factor negatively influencing your predictions are the "weather projects" and "cloud seeding" being done by many governments and scientists now.
They give their reasons for doing so as trying to end droughts, help upcoming crops, etc. I'm sure there are several other reasons they have for doing these things, for ever building HAARP or experimenting with 'controlling the weather', and I'm also quite sure we all were never meant to know them. It just seems that in doing these things, they are negatively impacting much more than weather predictions.
Is this subject too controversial for you guys to have included in your article, had y'all not considered it, or would this just fall under the broad term of climate change?
Thanks for another very interesting article. I love content that makes me consider things I never have before. Question Everything!

Winter 2016-2017

I live in northeastern Illinois, 35 miles north of Chicago, about 3 miles west of Lake Michigan. If anyone is going to get lake effect snow, we do. I'm keeping track of temperatures, humidity levels, and precipitation on a daily basis.
So far, this winter has been extremely close to the OFA forecast for my area, which included extreme cold in December and snow. It was about 10 days before Christmas that the temperature dropped substantially. Up to then, we'd had mild winter weather and some rain. Snow storms had gone north and south of us. Snow really started on 12/10/16 and continued to fall off and on, while the temps dropped further and further and by Dec. 14, it finally stopped. I walked over to the bank (about a mile) in the nastiest, beastly western wind I've had to face since high school (1960s), and took the bus to the store to get groceries, then got a cab to come home. Very glad I live in a civilized area! The most noticeable things were high humidity levels, in the 65% to 90% range, and that beastly wind which drove the snowstorm to us. Then it stayed in the 3F to 20F range until mid-January, when it started to warm up again, to the mid-30s and mid-40s daytime, and no colder than 19F at night. Humidity levels were still extremely high, in the 65% to 90% ranges, which is not normal for this area in the winter. I've never seen this happen before this year.
I think that atmospheric humidity levels have had a serious influence on the weather this winter. The most recent snow was this past Monday andTuesday. The local forecast was 3 to 6 inches. I waited until it stopped falling and measure it at 11 inches, not in a drift, just as it fell. The most important influence seems to be a high humidity level, which did not drop below 50% all winter. I think this is something new, but it's the third winter I've noticed higher than usual humidity indoors and outdoors both - no static electric shocks from appliances and doorknobs - that sort of thing.
I have also found that the weather service forecasts are frequently quite far from accurate when they try to go past one week ahead. I think we are in for a lot more winters like this. I'm just hoping for plenty of rain and cool weather this summer, for a nice, green lawn.
One last thing: I have a friend in California, a firefighter who responds to the forest fires. His answer to the 'shock and surprise' over the end of the 5-year drought in California is that the older forest service workers predicted it for 2016 or 2017. They knew it would end, but they were ignored. Maybe we should be listening to the old timers and be less dependent on computers.

Boise, Idaho

My husband and I moved to Boise, Idaho in 1984. That Thanksgiving, people were cross country skiing down the streets, and snow stayed on the ground for 50+ days. Since that winter, nothing compared..... until this winter. This winter, my greenhouse collapsed from the weight of the snow. This winter, it was below freezing for weeks on end, with at least another snow storm every week. This winter was enough to make my husband and I decide to move south for the duration of our lives. We're going to let someone else shovel all that snow.

Winter in Central IL

For all intents and purposes, Central Illinois has had no Winter this Winter. Oh, we've had the cold temperatures all right, but almost no snow. The ONE snowfall we had (of any depth at all), I got out the snow-blower and tried to start it: IT wouldn't start (probably inactive so long), so I put it back and hand-shoveled. With only 7 days left until the start of Spring, we got 4" of snow ... and it looked beautiful for a while, then temperatures went into the 40's and it's practically all gone, now, just 2 days later. I moved here from Southern California 20 years ago. Even I now have to say, "I miss Winter." IF we have to have the freezing temperatures, at least give us some snow to appreciate.

Winter for the records

I appreciate reading this article. I live in Hawaii and this is the coolest winter I've ever experienced despite being without cooling trade winds. Most of the wind has been from the south which is always warm. My only issue with the article is this repeated theme of global climate change which usually insinuates man-made change. I would like to see more themes showing how the Earth, planets and the Sun are far more powerful and influential than the harm from humans. The term of global climate change has been misrepresented and used too much I think.


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