Winter weather forecast for Ohio, Michigan
TOLEDO, Ohio – As another winter dawns, the question always arises: Will it be a cold and snowy winter? Seasonal forecasting is inherently difficult and involves many complex and sometimes unknown variables. One thing is clear, this winter has a high probability of a strong or perhaps historically strong El Niño pattern.
What exactly is El Niño? This is generally referred to as an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon characterized by warmer than average tropical Pacific waters off the coast of South America. Among other effects, the domino effect of weather events reverses the direction of trade winds near the equator and shifts the overall jet stream pattern globally.
What does this mean locally? Across the United States, this often results in a more active subtropical jet stream across the southern tier of the United States with above-average precipitation. More frequent storms on the Pacific Coast bring moderate weather across the northern Plains and Great Lakes region. Finally, drier than average weather across the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes is more favorable as the more active polar jet stream migrates northward into Canada.
Let’s set the stage for what a “normal winter” looks like. Seven of the past eight winters have seen below-average snowfall. This has the imprint of a generally warming climate. However, many will not soon forget the treacherous winters of 2013-14 that brought a record snowfall of 86.3 inches. This far exceeds the normal winter snowfall of 37.4 inches.
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Winter weather patterns can be highly variable, even in a generally warm climate. Recent trends have confirmed warmer winters with snowfall trending below average with fewer average measurable snow days in winter. However, there are many other variables that affect the outcome of the winter.
By far, the biggest impact on our upcoming winter has been building for months. It is the effect of a historically strong to strong El Niño. This pattern has been recognized to have very close and direct impacts on our local weather during the winter. Notably, El Niño-style warming and the eventual domino effect often displace the polar jet stream northward into Canada. The result is a warmer, drier and less snowy winter season.
Recent forecasts remain very high in confidence that at least a strong El Niño will occur, with a 35% chance of what amounts to a historically strong El Niño occurring. A historically strong El Niño has only been recorded three times in recorded history, all with similar characteristics of very warm winter weather, below-average snowfall, and below-average precipitation.
Snowfall during the last five strong El Niño winters was 79% of normal levels, and total seasonal snowfall in the three historically strong El Niño winters was dismal, at only 47% of normal. During the most recent very strong El Niño, there was no measurable snow in December 2015, and it was one of the warmest Decembers in recorded history. In January 1998 and 1983 our total monthly snowfall was less than 2 inches each month during a strong El Niño pattern.
What could make this outlook change? There are some early indications that this strong El Niño may not behave entirely like a strong El Niño. The El Niño Multivariate Index can serve as a more comprehensive overview of the overall atmospheric response and represents more variables within El Niño. The data here could be an indication that this winter may “behave” more like a modest El Niño season, rather than a strong or very strong one.
Another factor is sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) that disrupts the polar vortex. Inevitably, this happens every winter and can lead to periods of cold or very cold and snowy weather for at least a few weeks. It’s safe to say that this happens in any winter and will provide our best chance of at least a few weeks of cold and snowy weather.
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Overall, the 2023 to 2024 winter season will likely be above average with temperatures and below average with snowfall. If a modest to strong El Niño cooperates similarly, our overall average winter temperatures could be 2 or more degrees warmer over the entire winter. Snowfall will be below average in the range of 20-28 inches of total snow during the entire season.
Stay tuned to WTOL’s 11 daily forecasts as we head into the upcoming winter season. While overall conditions may be bleak due to frequent snowfalls, history has shown that it only takes one good storm to create an unforgettable winter season.
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