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Warm winter in West, but East? Who knows

Published October 18, 2012 2:50 pm

Weather • Climate center has no clear forecast for Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Want a warm winter? Head West, young man.

The winter weather forecast released Thursday morning from federal forecasters shows that the western USA is the part of the country most likely to see an unusually warm winter.

Almost every state west of the Mississippi is expected to be warmer than average, according to Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md. The CPC is a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The center's forecast covers the months of December, January and February, which is known as meteorological winter.

The western warmth would continue the amazing heat that the nation has seen this year. So far, the U.S. is enduring its hottest year on record, based on weather records that go back to 1895, reports Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The year 2012 will almost certainly go down as the warmest in U.S. history, he says.

Halpert also says the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest should see less rain and snow than average, which isn't good news for those drought-plagued regions.

As of Thursday morning's U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website that tracks drought, 62 percent of the lower 48 states are currently in drought conditions, with the worst of the drought centered in the northern and western U.S.

As for the 50 million Americans that live in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, where snowstorms typically bring the most angst, the climate center was unable to give a clear forecast for the winter's cold and snow. However, a forecast released earlier this month from private forecasting firm AccuWeather said the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic would likely see more snow than they did last year.

The one state that should see a cooler-than-average winter is Florida, the CPC forecasts. Also, much of the Gulf Coast will also see an unusually wet winter.

The main ingredient that climate scientists use to forecast winter weather is the strength of El Niño or La Niña, climate patterns that affect weather around the world. (El Niño is unusually warm water in the tropical Pacific Ocean, while La Niñña means cooler-than-average water in the Pacific.)

Earlier this fall, Halpert says, all signs pointed toward the development of El Niño, but that hasn't panned out. "A few months ago, El Niño seemed likely to develop, but it hasn't happened," he says. "There are some signs that it could develop over the next few months, however."

Along with the effects of El Niño, another climate pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation will again play a role in how snowy or cold the highly populated Northeast, Midwest and East Coast are this winter. This has been the case the past three winters. Unfortunately, the intensity of the Arctic Oscillation can only be predicted a week or two in advance, he says.

"Climate prediction is still in its infancy," reminds Halpert.