Winter means different things to different people, largely dependent on the weather they experienced as children.
Those who grew up in the region during the 1960s and '70s remember tall snowbanks along streets and driveways, and sledding on Christmas Day.
Capital Region residents who were youths in the 1990s and 2000s experienced green Decembers, with maybe a few cold snaps and moderate snowstorms coming in January, February and March.
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Both impressions of winter are correct, as it turns out. Winter, which began Thursday, can be ferocious one year and feeble the next, appearing to go through cycles.
Dan Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, said predicting winter in the Capital Region is like throwing dice.
"Certain years, the dice can be loaded toward one direction or the other, depending on what some of the longer-term trends are and what's happening in the Pacific Ocean," Thompson said. "But there's also definitely a good deal of random chance for each winter."
According Weather Service records, 75.9 inches of snow fell during the winter of 2014-15. The next year was much lighter.
In 2015-16, only 16.9 inches of snow fell from December to March. It was the second-least snowy winter on record in the Capital Region.
Last winter's snowfall was 60.8 inches, around the normal expected regional snowfall of 60.3.
Meteorologists say there's little correlation between late-autumn snow (whatever falls up until Dec. 21) and what the region will experience in the season to come.
"I don't know of any correlation for the first 20, 21 days of meteorological winter that says, sometimes all you need is one big storm early in the month, and you could say, 'Oh, maybe we're going to have a very snowy or bad winter,'" said National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Wasula. "I don't know of any statistic or analysis that has done that."
Paul E. Roundy believes December snowfall can affect the weather, though. Roundy, an associate professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at the University at Albany, said snowfall on the ground reflects sunlight back into space and makes it easier for cold air masses to form.
"In winters that get heavy snowfall on the ground in early December, December is on average colder and January may also be, on average, colder," Roundy said.
It doesn't necessarily mean more snow is coming, though.
The 5 inches of snow that have fallen so far this month on the Capital Region, Wasula believes, represent a normal roll-up to winter.
"It's only a couple inches below normal for the month, and it's only about 5 inches below normal for the season," Wasula said. "I consider that a normal average for the winter at this point."
For the season, Thompson said, meteorologists are expecting above-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation.
"Every winter, you're going to have periods of snowfall and periods of milder weather," Thompson said. "It's important to know that above normal does not always mean snow. If you have above normal temperatures as well, more of that may fall in the form of rain."
Long-term predictions are, again, dicey.
"We can try," Thompson said. "There are certain longer-range predictors, like what the El Niño and La Niña cycles are doing. But it's still kind of an emerging science to predict what the winter is going to be like."
Meteorologists follow trends. Thompson said some decades have been warmer than others; some have been colder.
"The trend on the global scale is toward warming, but that's not necessarily the case as you look at each individual area," Thompson said.
Even when weather patterns appear set, quirks can happen.
"During the warmest winter on record, 2015-16, the coldest night in like 15 years occurred," Roundy said. "It was the end of February, and we went down to 15 below. So right in the middle of this warm thing, there was this shocker cold event. Most people probably don't remember that."
The Weather Service has collected snowfall amounts dating to 1884 for the Capital Region. Some high points:
- The last winter people might describe as an "old-fashioned winter" took place in 2002-03, when 105.4 inches of snow fell. It was the area's third-snowiest winter of all time.
- Winter lovers have to go back to 1970-71 for the only snowy season of the 20th century to top 100 inches. The 112.5 inches that fell that winter became the snowiest winter of all time — besting the 110 inches that fell during the winter of 1887-88.
- The least snowy winter on record took place in 1912-13, when only 13.8 inches of snow were recorded.
- People who remember the light snowfall of 2015-16 (16.9 inches) may also remember a light winter that took place four years earlier. The 2011-12 season dropped only 23.3 inches, the fourth least snowy winter on record. The 2005-2006 season brought only 30.2 inches, 15th on the least snowy list.
- The winter of 1914-15 dropped 28.7 inches of snow. The following year, 94.7 inches of snow fell. And in 1916-17, only 40.4 inches of snow were recorded.
- The late 1960s and early 1970s were great years for snow lovers. In 1969-70, 87.7 inches of snow fell in the Capital Region. The next season, 1970-71, was the all-time leader with 112.5 inches. In the winter of 1971-72, 89.3 inches of snow were recorded, and in 1972-73, 70.9 inches of snow fell.
- Other big-snow winters of the 1900s include the 90 inches of snow that fell during 1947-48; the 80.2 inches that fell in 1955-56; and the 94.2 inches that fell during the 1992-93 season.
- Two light winters were recorded during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1988-89, 19 inches of snow fell — the third-least snowy winter on record. In 1990-91, 28.7 inches fell, tied for 10th on the low-snow list with the winter of 1914-15.
- The 1992-93 season included the Capital Region's second-largest storm of all time: the 26.6-inch storm of March 13-14.
- The Capital Region's largest snowstorm took place March 11-14, 1888, which put 46.7 inches of snow on the ground. That was part of a 110-inch winter, second on the all-time list.
- November was a pre-winter player in both 1971 and 1972, with snowstorms of 24 and 24.6 inches, respectively.
- In 1884-85, the first year of recorded weather statistics, 57.3 inches of snow fell during the winter months.
Reach Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].