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Thursday, April 14, 2016

An agonizing Super Nino winter full of mild weather, missed storms and bad luck is in the books

As promised, even one of the lousiest MRG season's in history deserves a wrap-up. It's painful even trying to remember all of the early season warm weather and the opportunities lost thereafter. 2015-2016 was a miserable winter and snow season in about every statistical way and then some. Adding to the misery was the repeated obscene gestures mother nature seemed to be throwing at us. In the parlance of our times, weather geeks might refer to them as "screw jobs". Get enough of these and one might refer to his location as a "snow hole". In the common tongue a "screw job" is a storm that deposits snow on seemingly every location but your own while a "snow hole" is a region that gets repeated "screw jobs" throughout the year.

Typically, quantifying "screw jobs" and "snow holes" reveals that the term is used too loosely. Statistics manage to even out over time and missing one storm early in the year can be balanced out by getting "bullseyed" later in the season. I bring this all up because I actually wanted to do the analysis and see if the repeated misses this season actually turned central and northern Vermont into the "snow hole" we all perceived it to be. In doing such analysis it is vital that you keep climatology as a reference point so I looked at snowfall amounts across the northeast, the mid atlantic and even parts of Quebec and compared them all to their respective annual averages. Here are some of the results. 

Location         2016   Avg   Pct
Mad River Glen   112.0 240.0  46%

Burlington, VT    31.6  81.2  39%
Manchester, NH    28.4  61.4  46%
Caribou, ME       87.2 108.7  80%
Montreal, QC      61.1  85.6  71%
Jay Peak, VT     194.0 340.0  57%
Albany, NY        16.9  59.1  29%
Rochester, NY     62.3  99.5  63%
New York, NY      32.1  27.5 119%
Baltimore, MD     35.1  20.1 175%

Drawing maps on the internet is not my expertise but even doing this basic one is very revealing. 

The map isn't perfectly drawn, but is a basic illustration of the above data. The Vermont "snow hole" was very real this winter. Places to our north such as Montreal and northern Maine outperformed us on a relative basis, as did places to our east along the Maine coast, as did places to our west such as the snowbelts of New York and the populated regions of southern Ontario. Areas to our south as New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC did exceptionally well relative to average all receiving between 125 and 175 percent of normal snowfall. Mad River Glen was not the worst location, but it was on the northeastern edge of the worst location so I am not accepting any consolation prizes. The corridor from southern Vermont through Albany to Binghamton, NY to Scranton, PA to Williamsport, PA was the worst place to be. All of these locations received under 35 percent of normal snowfall and some locations set records for the least snowiest season on record. Williamsport, PA has only recorded 6 inches of snow this winter, an incredibly depressing and dreadful result. Harrisburg, PA which is not even 100 miles down the Susquehanna Valley performed much better and the disparity can be explained away in one storm: the big January 22-23 Mid Atlantic blizzard that did Vermont no favors.

Though there was a promising build-up of snow across the northern hemisphere during the autumn months and the remnants of the two previous super "+ PDO" years remained in place, the dominating variable during the past year was the El Nino. I have been referring to this seasons big El Nino as the 4th "Super Nino" in recorded ENSO history dating back 65 years. A "Super Nino" is an El Nino winter where the critical ENSO measuring reasons feature water temperatures of more than 2 Celsius above average for a month. We have seen other "Super Nino" winters deliver decent though not great results and I certainly expected the mild weather to win the day in spite of the positive PDO and high late-autumn snow cover numbers.  The snowfall forecast of "normal" however was way too optimistic and in retrospect was unlikely given some of the expected temperature anomalies. It is probably fair to say that the region was relatively lucky during the super El Nino of 1997-1998 and was equally if not more unlucky during the past winter season where less than half of usual amounts of snow accumulated on the mountain.

To recap, it was not a pretty start. The mild weather that prevailed in November intensified in December and turned the month into one of the mildest months relative to average since skiing began at Mad River Glen. I am sure no one working at MRG was thrilled about having the mountain closed during the Christmas holiday, but I was hopeful that we could simply put the adverse pattern behind us  and out of the way and that the weather would deliver the same positive results of the recent 2006-2007 El Nino winter. There was every reason to believe that would happen as we approached New Years 2016. The menacingly strong jet stream in the Pacific which destroyed the month, relaxed substantially in January and outbreaks of cold weather and even some potential snow events finally appeared on the horizon.

The first big chance for a storm was on the weekend of January 9th and 10th. In the end, it was cold enough prior to the storm, cold enough in the wake of the storm and 40 degrees and raining during the storm. It would be the first of many events in the January-February time frame that either missed the region entirely or brought a drenching rain to a snow-starved mountain. The two weeks that followed did feature sub-freezing temperatures and some modest snowfall. The snow generally coming from clipper systems and Lake Champlain/terrain enhanced snow. As we approached the weekend of January 23rd and 24th however, a major storm became big news but not for the right reasons. Metropolitan areas, generally in the Mid-Atlantic region experienced a paralyzing blizzard but all of interior New England received little if any snow. By the end of January, more mild weather and even some rain left valley locations devoid of snow pack. Even the high country had a glaring lack of snow and we were once again closed for business by early February.

Most of February was even more agonizing.  The first 7 days of the month were an abomination complete with both mild weather and rain. The pattern became more favorable in the weeks that followed but for the most part, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and found new and incredible ways to miss big storms. Terrain enhanced snowfall around February 10th and 11th provided the mountain with the best powder of the year and reopened most of the terrain for what turned out to be a brutally cold holiday weekend. The weather remained true to its 2015-2016 character however and in the worst traditions of New England winter weather. Within 2 days of -15 degree temperatures, it was raining yet again with readings in the 40's and deteriorating snow. Just over a week later we saw more of the same, rain and another lost opportunity at a big storm. Models continuously struggled to provide any clarity and were full of false alarms for a variety of reasons. Most of this just simply rubbed salt in the proverbial wound. A week of cold weather in early March brought with it another storm that managed to miss all of New England and provide decent snows to both Ontario and Quebec. It was all over after that as mild weather reestablished control over much of eastern North America and effectively ended the season.

These days, any mild season brings the topic of climate change or global warming right to the fore. I've said it many times that mixing seasonal, monthly, weekly, daily, geographical variability with a longer term trend such as what has occurred with global warming does not work on the debate stage and people continuously fall into the this trap. There are so many components of the seasonal variability equation which need to be measured and we discuss many on the blog and many others I leave out. Though "global climate change" is a component when predicting temperatures over the course of a winter season it remains a very small component. A Super Nino type winter season, such as the one we had will render it even smaller. I am not a denier; far from it actually, but raising awareness of the issue requires one to approach it from the appropriate scientific perspective.

Speaking in terms of seasonal variability, nothing seems to have the impact that can match that of a Super Nino as far as global land and sea temperatures are concerned. As mentioned, we have had 4 of these events in the 65 years of recorded history and every one has resulted in a 0.3-0.6 C rise in temperatures relative to average across the globe with higher numbers at higher latitudes. It is an astoundingly large figure which accounts for a substantial portion of the big global anomalies we saw in the December to February time frame this year. Those that refuse to accept the statistical reality of global warming loved to refer to 1998. It is the reference point that has reached legendary status among the deniers. How statistically convenient to use a record setting Super Nino as a starting point and then claim that the globe as cooled since then ! Take a look.

Given what we know about El Nino and what we also know about seasonal variability, this argument is completely ludicrous. What is not ludicrous would be to compare global temperatures this past winter season with those that occurred during the last Super Nino, the legendary reference point of 1998. Take a look at these global temperatures anomalies.

Month          1998      2016
January        0.60      1.05
February       0.86      1.21

So with a Super Nino that was nearly equivilent if not a little weaker than 1998, global temperatures actually rose .45 C in January and .35 C in February. Such data just lends greater support to what we already know about the statistical global temperature trends. It is very noticable and very quantifiable. Those that want to claim the data is manipulated can simply resort to the empirical evidence such as the deterioration of glaciers, loss of ice in the Arctic, or the 9 trillion tons of ice lost in Greenland. 

With election season approaching and given some of the data discusssed in the previous paragraphs, we may again see some light shed on the issue in the coming months. I just find it unfortunate that have yet to move beyond the point of proving the relevance of the data. There are two candidates that have said, given the chance, that they would like to abolish the EPA entirely and leave the environmental regulatory authority to the states. Though some states might behave it would undoubtedly in my view set up an arms race among other states to see who can be the most friendly to the big polluters. Furthermore, it degenerates the argument to the point where no big picture workable solutions can be agreed upon. I tell as many environmentally aware people as possible that simply getting into pissing matches with other environmentally aware people is not enough. The needle only gets moved if the skeptics can be won over. Environmental issues need to be embraced not only by liberals but also by conservatives. In this country we seem to be moving farther away from that every day. If you are a conservative, there is nothing out there that requires you to eat everything at the conservative buffet. You agree with 60, 70 or 80 percent of the platform yet reject the cynical view toward environmental issues such as what Christine Todd Whitman has done. It is the most viable path forward toward meaningful change. 

Anyway, this miserable season is well behind us and the last of the snow is melting on the mountain. Next year, this El Nino will be severely weakened if not gone entirely. We are also through a season that featured some horrendous misfortune, some of which can simply attributed to a bad season at mother nature's slot machine. A repeat performance of that is highly unlikely. Enjoy the summer everyone and we will speak again as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, hopefully with some snow to talk about.