Will DC have a colder-than-average winter?

Nov 03, 2011

Chat with Matt Ross about the winter outlook for the DC area.

Contest: How much snow will fall this winter?

Hi everyone.  I am looking forward to answering any questions about our winter outlook or just DC winters in general.  So fire away.

We had a very wet summer and have already had snow in October. We seem to definitely be in a La Nina pattern this year, with a weakened jet stream and signficant moisture coming up from the Gulf. It seems that we might expect a lot of snow this winter if this continues. Any chance the La Nina effect will lessen as we get into January - February?

Actually, the effects of La Nina should be more pronounced as we head into winter...I don't think the October snow is necessarily an appetizer of what to anticipate

Matt - Is there any correlation between the amount of precipitation we are over our average (currently about 7 inches over) at the beginning of winter and the amount of snow we get subsequently?

This is a good question and one I don't have an immediate answer for.  I suspect any correlation is not strong.

Hi Matt: If you had to take a wild guess as to which month will feature the biggest storm and a range of amounts what would you go with?

January.  Amounts are really total guesswork, but I don't think it is unreasonable to anticipate a 6-10" storm.

Who cares about the temperature - how much snow are we going to get?

Our winter outlook covers that.  I think near but just below normal but that is a low-medium confidence guess.


How exactly do meterologists predict the weather for an entire season? Do they use data from earlier in the year or do they use information from winters past?

We cover that a bit in our winter outlook.  Usually seasonal outlooks rely on a blend of analog years and indices.  I think information from winter's past is certainly integral to any outlook, even if any one year alone is used loosely as a rough guide

Living here a long time, it seems we rarely get the "average" snowfall amount. We get 9 years of little snow, and then one really bad year. Are most cities like this or are we different because we are usually so close to the freezing line? Meaning, we can alternately get 2 inches or rain or 20 inches of snow based on a small change in the temperature.

We have a bigger spread between the mean and median than most of the cities in the northeast and midwest, which is indicative of what you have observed.  Feast or famine.  I think it is mosly a product of our latitude but also the mountains to our west.  They often "rob" us of good moisture approaching from the west/northwest which is why we usually don't get a lot of nickel and dime events that would give us a more uniform snow composite. 

There are theories the climate change is warming the global atmosphere which is permanently pushing the jet stream in a more southern position. This means that more regions north of the jet stream may be getting colder winters. Is this early snow a sign of this, is the jet stream usually found further south, and does it appear we may thus have a colder winter, overall? (PS. I am hoping I am wrong.)

This may not answer your question directly, but our cold/snow is somewhat dependent on how much the polar/northern jet dips during the winter since we are not expecting a very active southern jet.  Most of the time the northern branches of the jet stream are not conducive to cold snow here, but there are exceptions.  This winter may feature some more exceptions than usual, but I don't expect a cold winter throughout

Hi Matt: What I want to know is how much snow for Cleveland Park?

16.5", precisely ;)

How much do they just read what the NWS tells them and how much do they "interpret" the data? One weathercaster likes to use the phrase "we believe" like he/she helped in the forecast. Is there any truth to that?

Many/Most TV weather folks are degreed meteorologists and the ones in this area are very good.  They typically know what they are talking about and don't just rip and read the NWS forecasts.

Given that television meteorologists often can't seem to predict what the weather will be next week, roughly how accurate are predictions made a season in advance? What are you doing that they aren't? Did you predict (or estimate with decent certainty) our super winter several years ago?

Our seasonal predictions are low confidence.  We did pretty well with the 2009-10 winter, though came nowhere close to predicting the epic amounts.  A moderate el nino and Atlantic blocking pattern is a very good setup for us, and that is what we had.  The signals are a lot more conflicted this winter.

Do you think the area will ever see a decade similar to the 60's for winter?

There are some who think we are currently in the early stages of such a period.  I am not sure myself, but I think the tendency toward snowier/colder winters in our backyard is higher over the next several years than it was in say the 90s.

all these drastic climatic changes, floods, snowstorms in unlikely places are result of global warming?

This is not an area in which I am knowledgeable enough to answer you.  My guess is it is a factor, but that there are other factors that drive our weather as well, so not everything can be explained by global warming.  Our sample size of accurate records is only 125-150 years old and satellite data only 60. There will be lots of surprises.  Climatology is organic.

DC ex-pat here, any info on how the winter looks for Boston this year? When will I need to bring out my lawn chairs again to save my dug-out parking spot?

The northeast has been cleaning up the last few winters and I suspect this one will be no different.  I'd suspect Boston will be around normal snowfall, but it should be colder than  normal.

Are most of our systems going to be coming from Canada?(Manitoba/Alberta/Saskatchewan)? Also, could we see redevelopment this winter, as in the low goes to our west into WV, dies out, and a new primary low develops near Cape Hatteras and moves up the coast?

Yes...I think a decent number of storm systems will originate in western Canada.  And yes, I expect a number of Miller B type storms that have a primary low occlude and taken over by a coastal/secondary.  Our latitude is a real challenge for these kind of storms.  They typically develop  bit too far north and/or we dry slot quickly, but not always.  I think we can expect at least one of these kind of storms gives us a "decent" snow this winter.  We really need redevelopment south of Norfolk.  Off the Del Marva or north of there is usually bad for snow lovers here.

What are the odds of a repeat of Snowmageddon this year?


Hi Matt: If you could think of a way this forecast would "bust" low on snow, how might that come together?

2 ways, though there are more.  First would be more blocking than we anticipate which would push the northern stream further south and get us in more of the action that cripples Philly to Boston but leaves us crying.  The other would be a decent early or late season snow.  Say before December 15th and after March 1st.  We are more likely to get favorable storm tracks then, if we can get cold air in place which is always a challenge here outside of the heart of winter.

I live in Chicago, and it seems pretty insane to me that DC saw snow before we did this season. How rare is that? And is it an omen that our winter will be more mellow than usual?

I suspect it is pretty rare.  I personally am not seeing a brutal winter for Chicago.  Perhaps near/above normal temps and average/above average snow, but I am in the minority.  Most forecasts I am seeing have a cold/very cold winter in your area. 

Hi Matt: Wes Junker has really brought a lot to CWG analysis of storms. He might be my favorite meteorologist ever. If he were running for president would you vote for him? I think I might, especially if he forecasts heavy snow.

Wes Junker knows what he is talking about.  Seriously.  Anyone interested in winter weather or just learning more should follow him religiously this winter.

Any chance this year could be like 95-96, which was also a La Nina? Any similarities?

This is a great question as 95-96 was a La Nina that didn't act like one.  If you are a snow lover, easily the best I-95 winter on record.  I am not seeing a 1995-96 repeat.  That was a weak La Nina that followed a very extended period of El Nino/Neutral winters.  Nina should be more of a factor this winter.  Additionally, November 1995 was brutally cold for much of the country and we are not seeing that kind of start to November this year.

Hi Matt, Am I crazying in thinking that we're more likely go back to our freezing cold and ice instead of snow this winter?

I don't think ice is any more or less likely than other winters.  We will see mixed precip events.  We always do, but I don't think a tendency toward a big ice event is evident.

What do you enjoy more December snow or February snow?

February.  Packs more of a punch (usually) and gives us one more taste of winter before spring comes.  Most like December better though.  It sticks around a lot longer due to sun angle and there is of course the whole holiday season thing.  But I am not picky.  I will take snow anytime I can get it.

Hi Matt. Do you think that our snow fortunes will be rise and fall with those of Philly/NYC this year. I can take Boston getting more snow than us, but it's pretty frustrating when Philly (just 2 hours north of here) gets hammered and we get nothing. Basically, is this going to be like last winter, where we get 10 inches and Philly gets like 50?

That is the trend.  Philly and NYC are the new snow meccas.  I don't see as big a disparity as we have seen in some recent winters, but I still expect Philly and NYC to outperform us.

Last year was mild, from what I recall. Very little snow.

That is why we record snow and temperatures and don't rely on oral history :)

Will it snow Dec 5? Love-Ji

Jay, I know you are asking because we have seen a freakish number of events fall on this date in the last decade, but I think chances are pretty good of getting our 1st legit snow at lower elevations during the late Novemember, early December window.

Big fan! What month do you see our best chance for snow?

January, but that is low confidence.  February is not typically good for us in a La Nina, but there are exceptions.  I think it is 29 days this winter, so maybe it can compete ;)

I have another 5-10 minutes, so if you have anything on your mind, ask!

I have heard when there is a lot of snow in Siberia in the fall, that means a cold, snowy winter here in DC. Has the region had a lot of snow this fall? Do you think there's a link?

I am not well versed in this, but there is credible science to back a link.  I think it is running at or above normal so far, but don't quote me on that.

Thanks everyone for the great questions.  Hope everybody has an awesome winter.  And snow lovers, please keep up hope.  I am not seeing a big winter, but there is much uncertainty, and the number of huge storms in the northeast the last couple winters leaves me with substantial doubt. 

In This Chat
Matt Ross
Matt Ross has been interested in weather since early childhood, including a specific fascination with snowstorms and extreme weather events. Although he passed on a career as a meteorologist, his enthusiasm for both weather and statistics, particularly related to the D.C. area's local climate, continues to strengthen as he gets older. Frustrated with the region's lack of snow, Matt has been known to chase after the white stuff, including trips to northern New England and the Tug Hill region of New York during major snow events. Of particular interest to Matt is the study of analogs, or past weather data as a means of predicting long-range seasonal patterns. Matt resides in Mt. Pleasant where he has measured and recorded every snow event since the winter of 2004-05.
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