U.S. Has Plenty of Snow on the Ground, Just Not in the East

  • January temperatures still linger above normal along coast
  • `El Nino years are very tricky,' says chief of weather service

Snow boarders and skiers wait for Mountain High West to open on Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, in Wrightwood, Calif.

Photographer: Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images

Across the U.S., there’s more snow on the ground now than there was a year ago.

In fact, the last time there was more snow across the U.S. was in 2011, according to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Chanhassen, Minnesota -- the arm of the National Weather Service that tracks such things.

You couldn’t tell that in any of the large cities along the East Coast.

Through Tuesday, New York’s Central Park has had a trace of snow, Boston 0.9 inch, and Washington and Philadelphia nothing at all, according to National Weather Service records.

It isn’t surprising, because across the contiguous 48 states, December was the warmest on record. While January readings have chilled the region from Boston to Washington, they are still lingering above normal levels in the large eastern cities, the weather service said.

To understand the temperatures, just look to the equatorial Pacific Ocean, where a warming of the sea’s surface and a ruffling of the atmosphere above it have upset winter weather patterns over the U.S.

Classic Pattern

“It’s a classic El Nino pattern,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said in an interview at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

Warmer air came in off the Pacific, where it got a boost crossing the mountains of the western U.S. and brought about the spring-like December, Uccellini said. Since then, cold has begun to descend from the Pole and sweep into the central U.S., due in part to another weather system known as the Arctic Oscillation, which operates independently of El Nino.

Typically, an El Nino is supposed to mean a mild winter for the Northeast. This is where things get interesting. One of the hallmarks of an El Nino is wet Pacific storms that sweep across the southern U.S., often picking up more moisture in the Gulf of Mexico before moving up and over the Atlantic coast off Washington, New York and Boston.

Cold’s Impact

Touch any of them with the wand of cold, and snow can fall by the foot. In 2010, a storm dubbed Snowmageddon clobbered the mid-Atlantic states, along with the cities of Washington and Baltimore.

Uccellini said 2010 was also an El Nino year. So where is all the snow this time?

As it turns out, El Ninos seem to be all or nothing when it comes to snow in the East, Uccellini said. The sample size is low -- just 11 instances with good data -- but in El Nino years, Washington, for instance, has received either its most snow or its least snow.

New York’s snowiest month was February 2010, which recorded 36.9 inches, during an El Nino, according to weather service data.

“El Nino years are very tricky,” Uccellini said.

So far this year, the center of the El Nino-spurred storms have been taking a track much further inland. This means the warm sides of the storms, where the rain falls, have been what the East Coast cities have been getting.

NYC Rain

On Sunday, New York’s Central Park had 1.8 inches of rain, a record for the date, as another of these storms moved northeast. If that had fallen as snow, according to some estimates it might have been at least 18 inches.

There isn’t a reason to think the cities will see any snow through this week, while it will pile up around the Great Lakes and across northern New England, said Brendon Rubin-Oster, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

There may be hope for East Coast snow lovers this weekend, said Bernie Rayno, an AccuWeather Inc. meteorologist. Rayno ran through some models on the exhibit floor at the AMS meeting to show that if the conditions are right, the next slug of moisture coming across the South could meet some frigid air from the north somewhere in New York and New England.

While there are no guarantees, Rayno said by Friday people could be talking about “rumors of snow.”

No Guarantees

Uccellini, who with Paul Kocin wrote what many consider the definitive book on Northeast winters, said from here on out there really aren’t any guarantees concerning snow, cold, or the lack thereof. After all, Boston barely had a flake on the ground at this point last year and ended the season with more than 110 inches, an all-time high.

“We’re going to have to look at this on a week-by-week basis,” Uccellini said.

In Central Park, there has never been a winter without snow in records going back to 1868. The least amount of snow Manhattan has received was 2.8 inches in 1972-73, according to the weather service.

The park had a snowless January during the winter of 1889-90. It ended up with more than 2 feet thanks to a March storm. And there was just a trace in 1932-33.

All of which means it’s a little too early to celebrate, or mourn, the death of winter on the East Coast.

There is plenty of time left to get clobbered.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE