Forecasters are predicting this winter will be colder and snowier than last year – when people could be seen fishing and jogging shirtless on Christmas Eve.
But it’s unclear whether conditions will top regional averages, since weather indicators are quieter now than they are in normal years, according to weather experts gathered Thursday for a conference at University at Albany titled “Facing the Storm: El Niño, the Polar Vortex and the Prospects for the Winter for 2016/17.”
Still, meteorologists and atmospheric researchers were confident that this winter will be more normal than last year.
“The signals we are getting are kind of muted,” said Raymond O’Keefe, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s Albany office. “It will be colder and snowier than last year, but there are not strong signals that would be helpful in giving us information about what way the winter will lean.”
O’Keefe said he expects temperatures this winter to be “reasonably close” to normal, and he suggested conditions were setting up to push winter snowfall close to the 60-inch average, though not all the way there.
Last year’s El Niño conditions drove temperatures in the region to eight degrees above normal for December and kept snowfall totals at record lows.
Years following strong El Niños, O’Keefe said, tend to have below-average snowfall – in the 40 to 45-inch range. He said he expects “significantly more (snowfall) than last winter but still below average.”
Andrea Lang is a UAlbany researcher and professor who specializes in the polar vortex – the persistent, large-scale, low pressure zone that rotates around the North Pole. She said there is evidence of a weak vortex, which suggests weather patterns this winter could swing between phases of colder- and warmer-than-normal temperatures.
Conditions now, for example, are in a warmer-than-normal phase, which forecasters expect to continue for several days.
Last year, there was a strong polar vortex, as seen in the wind speeds between 5 and 40 kilometers above the earth’s surface. That strength was coupled with a powerful El Niño effect last winter, which was spurred by a large pocket of abnormally warm surface water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that persisted for months.
“That produced conditions that allowed warm weather to persist in the central and northeastern United States,” Lang said, adding that this year’s polar vortex was unprecedentedly weak.
“With a weak vortex, there is a higher probability of departures from normal temperatures, either to warm or cold temperatures,” she said.
While it is still too early to make strong predictions about what effect the polar vortex will have on snowfall, Lang said the models were “leaning, tilting” toward more than average. It is also unclear whether the stronger storms could hit during a cold spell – causing snow – or a warm spell that would result in rain.
Thursday’s conference also touched on climate change trends, extreme weather resiliency and the National Weather Service’s changing weather warning system.
Paul Roundy, a UAlbany atmospheric sciences professor, focused on how long-term trends are moving warmer and warmer, but that in any given year, natural variability can push temperatures even higher – or soften the warming trend.
For his part, Roundy was less bullish than his colleagues on prospects for the coming winter, conceding it was highly unlikely the season would be as warm as last year.
“The potential for conditions to be colder [than last year] are pretty good because of how extreme it was,” Roundy said. “But don’t read that to imply background conditions favor extremely cold and snowy outcomes … they don’t.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.
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