Bill’s Winter Forecast

November 14th, 2008 at 7:00 am by under Bill's Blog, Weather

picture of buried cars <–After the Blizzard of ’78 (Dude, where’s my car??!!).   Here’s how I began last year’s winter forecast:    “One of the best winter forecasts ever made was recorded by Laura Ingalls Wilder (in “The Long Winter“) while her family was homesteading in the fall of 1880 near what is now DeSmet, South Dakota.  While the settlers gathered at the general store, a dignified, old Native American comes to warn the settlers about the coming “heap, big snows – for 7 (full) moons”.  Most of the settlers heeded the warning and moved to town for the winter.  Just as predicted, the blizzards came from late October to early April.  This winter West Michigan won’t see blizzards for 7 full moons…but we’re going to have plenty of cold and snow between now and late March.”

That last sentence proved to be true.  Only a monster thaw on the weekend after Christmas (the temperature hit 60 due to the “Cancun Connection”) prevented us from getting some “Blizzard of ’78″ style snow piles that would have really added up because the temperature stayed below freezing for all but a few hours during January (which was nearly five degrees colder than average).  Here’s the bulk of last year’s forecast which you can reread here:

Having digested all of this and more, I think snowfall this winter (2008-09) over the area will be above normal, varying from 55-60 inches in Lansing area to 85 inches in Grand Rapids to 100 inches in the favorable lake-effect areas. Marquette in the Upper Peninsula should top 150” for the winter.  I think it’ll be colder than average in December.  Lake Michigan is a little warmer than average and the lake temperature will stop for a week or two around 39 degrees as the lake water “overturns”.  This will set the stage for some significant lake-effect snow in late November into December.  We have a 57% chance of a White Christmas in Grand Rapids.  This year I think the chance of a White Christmas (snow on the ground) will be at least 75%.  We will see a January thaw, but winter will drag on a little later into March, when temperatures may again be a little cooler than average.  This will mean we’ll have to spend a fair amount of money on plowing, sanding and salting.  That will be a concern as the winter drags on during these financially lean times.  So, don’t be afraid to get the season ski pass, get the snowmobile or cross country skies ready or find the ice fishing equipment.  Winter is definitely on the way!  This pattern will mean only brief incursions of cool air to central and southern Florida, so if you want to escape the cold, that would be a nice place to be.”

Let’s see how we did:  I got the above normal snowfall right.  I wasn’t high enough on the totals, but I don’t think I’d ever forecast that high a total.  We did get some heavy lake-effect snow from late November into early December.  Holland had 67″ of snowfall before Christmas Eve (sometimes they don’t get that much in any entire winter), including over 3 feet of snow from Nov. 16 to Dec. 9.  We did get the White Christmas.  We didn’t get a January thaw, but we did get monster thaws on the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s and also on Feb. 10-11.  So the idea of a thaw was correct, but I missed the timing.  The first week of March was cold (as cold as 5 above zero), but the weather story in March was +70% sunshine.  The weather turned chilly again in early April (just in time for spring break) with below average temps. from April 4-14. 

There is so much to study when making up a winter forecast.  I look at the prevailing upper level winds, world sea-surface temperatures, the cold that builds up by mid-Autumn in the Arctic, sunspot cycles, the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific Decadal Oscillations, 2009 Atlantic hurricane patterns (a very wimpy year for tropical storms), the number of 90-degree days we’ve had during the previous summer (7 in the last 2 summers combined, average is 9.5 for one summer), and the current state of La Nina/El Nino.  We look back through our weather history to find correlations to the current conditions around the northern hemisphere and years when similar conditions were prevalent in the fall.  Any forecast is a guess, an “educated guess”.  The data base and the computer models aren’t good enough for near perfect forecast (won’t be in my lifetime), but long range forecasting has improved with new technology over the past 30 years.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac made what I think is a pretty good prediction.  Their forecast for the winter in our area is for warm weather for early November, very cold weather in December, a little warmer than average in January, near normal in February and a little colder than average in March.   The Almanac is forecasting below normal precipitation for December to February and above normal in March.  Keep in mind that we can have above normal snowfall and below normal precipitation at the same time (less rain/more fluffy snow when it’s cold).  Dr. Joe D’Aleo, a very respected long range forecaster, has worked with the Almanac this past year.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecast is just the opposite.  They have 34 states warmer than normal this winter and 15 states near normal for temperatures (they don’t include Hawaii).  The area with the greatest chance of a warmer than normal winter is Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.  They are forecasting an “equal chance” of above or below normal precipitation for the Great Lakes region this winter.

An interesting note…over the past 10 years, snowfall has trended upward in Grand Rapids and Muskegon.

First of all, we are moving back toward La Nina.   We had La Nina conditions last winter and wound up with 107″ of snow in Grand Rapids, our 2nd highest total ever.   The pattern went neutral this summer, and is now trending back toward La Nina, although it is now a weak La Nina.  Last year was one of the snowiest (if not THE SNOWIEST) winter in North America.  I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of that, but the pattern would suggest near to above normal snowfall for the Great Lakes.

We have been in a sunspot minimum in 2008.  August was the first calendar month since 1913 without a single sunspot.  History has shown a correlation between the number of sunspots and global temperature.  While this is more of a consideration for long-term climate (decades), I note that the Sporer, Maunder and Dalton sunspot minimum periods coincided with a cooling of global temperature.  The current sunspot minimum has been a little longer and stronger than expected and has been accompanied by a decrease in the solar wind.

Winter has come early in the Arctic.  Barrow at the northern tip of Alaska had 21″ of snow in 28 days (they average 29″ per year…it’s a cold desert up there.  Fairbanks has only had two days warmer than average in the last month and a half.  During October and early November, Fairbanks has been 8 degrees colder than average!  On the southern coast, Anchorage has only had one month this year that has been warmer than average.  They haven’t reached 30 degrees since Oct. 22 and the last three weeks have been five degrees colder than average.  The water off Alaska is colder than average and the sun won’t be of any help until spring.  That heavy, cold air will start building southward soon.  The surface Arctic icecap grew this year and is now at its greatest areal extent since 2002.

We have had a Gulf of Mexico centered hurricane season (Gustav and Ike brought heavy rain to West Michigan).  Recent years when that happened are 1985, 1989, and 1995.

If you look back through these years, you’ll find that December 1985 was the 12th coldest December ever in Grand Rapids and December 1989 was the 5th coldest December on record. December 1995 was four degrees colder than average. The average season snowfall for Grand Rapids is 72.9”. The season snowfall for the above years is 79.1” for the winter of 1985-86, 89.8” for the winter of 1989-90, 79.7” for the winter of 1995-96.

We only had one day this summer when the temperature was warmer than 90 degrees in Grand Rapids (and that was Sept. 2).

Having digested all of this and more, I think snowfall this winter over the area will be above normal, varying from 55-60 inches in Lansing area to 85 inches in Grand Rapids to 100 inches in the favorable lake-effect areas. Marquette in the Upper Peninsula should top 150” for the winter.  I think it’ll be colder than average in December.  Lake Michigan is a little warmer than average and the lake temperature will stop for a week or two around 39 degrees as the lake water “overturns”.  This will set the stage for some significant lake-effect snow in late November into December.  We have a 57% chance of a White Christmas in Grand Rapids.  This year I think the chance of a White Christmas (snow on the ground) will be at least 75%.  We will see a January thaw, but winter will drag on a little later into March, when temperatures may again be a little cooler than average.

This will mean we’ll have to spend a fair amount of money on plowing, sanding and salting.  That will be a concern as the winter drags on during these financially lean times.  So, don’t be afraid to get the season ski pass, get the snowmobile or cross country skies ready or find the ice fishing equipment.  Winter is definitely on the way!

This pattern will mean only brief incursions of cool air to central and southern Florida, so if you want to escape the cold, that would be a nice place to be.

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154 Responses to “Bill’s Winter Forecast”

  1. Ellen says:

    thanks for this Bill! that was so cool that you put the 75% chance of a white Christmas on your forecast, I always hope we will have one! I live in Grand Rapids, do you think we’ll see any significant snowfall soon? i’m getting so jealous of barrien county and everywhere else where they’re getting tons! thanks!

    Ellen

  2. emily says:

    I was wondering when was the last green christmas in grand rapids?

  3. Hey, is their something wrong with your RSS feed or is my reader being stupid?

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      I think we have it back. It’ll go offline from time to time as we move the radar around. We don’t have a separate computer for this…just what’s up on the desktop.

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