Experts give cloudy image of what to expect this winter

Northeast likely to have `variability' in weather

October 17, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

There's almost certain to be weather in the Northeast this winter. It's just that the National Weather Service can't figure out what kind.

After booting up their climate models, downloading gigabytes of satellite data and crunching it all through the latest supercomputers, the nation's weather experts held a teleconference yesterday to unveil their regional forecast for the coming winter. The bottom line?

"We don't know," said Ed O'Lenic, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "Our tools don't give us a clear picture one way or the other."

You could almost hear the gas coming out of the weather balloon.

Marylanders may be looking for a tad more after a year that has been relentlessly wet and surprisingly cool, punctuated by a smothering snowstorm and a devastating tropical storm.

Happily, there are plenty of others willing to step up to the plate, from the corporate weather giant AccuWeather, to the venerable almanacs and the humble, albeit scientifically dubious, woolly bear caterpillar.

You can save this article and decide for yourself on March 1 who got it right. But first, an explanation from the Weather Service.

El Nino and La Nina - deviations from normal Pacific Ocean water temperatures - have become the loudest "signals" ever discovered for guiding climate forecasting across the United States. But they're mostly mum this year.

"Ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific are very slightly warmer than the long-term averages. They may even reach a weak El Nino by late November," O'Lenic said.

Unfortunately for forecasters, an El Nino this weak is not likely to have much impact on temperature and precipitation in the United States this winter. That leaves other, less helpful signals in the jet streams, the north Pacific and north Atlantic.

For the Northeast, he said, it means this: "We are likely to have quite a bit of variability this winter."

That could be good and bad news. "I wouldn't rule out extremes of temperature and precipitation," he said. "But the fact is the tools we use to make our forecasts are kind of split on what is really likely to happen, and as a result, uncertainty is quite high."

That's not true everywhere. Alaska, the far West, Southwest, the southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley are likely to see higher-than-normal temperatures this winter. Texas and Oklahoma should be wetter than normal.

But for everybody else, the Weather Service said, there are "equal chances" of temperature and precipitation this winter being above, below or dead-on normal.

Wrong predictions

Even if the indicators did point one way or the other, it might not tell us much about what was really in store.

Last fall, for example, NOAA said there was a weak El Nino developing in the Pacific and predicted it would make the winter warmer than normal in the Northeast, with equal chances for wetter or drier skies.

"As everybody knows, it didn't turn out that way," said John Jones, the weather service's deputy director.

Last winter was the second-snowiest on record in Baltimore. February was the snowiest month ever on record in the city, with 40.5 inches - most of it falling in the paralyzing, three-day Presidents Day weekend storm.

The winter averaged 30.9 degrees - 4 degrees below normal, the coldest in 25 years and one of the coldest here ever.

The other prognosticators can be found farther out on the limb.

AccuWeather, which claims 40,000 paying customers in the media, business and government, issued a 90-day forecast yesterday with a glum warning for the Northeast.

"AccuWeather.com meteorologists are predicting a cold, snowy December and January for the Great Lakes, Northeast, eastern Ohio Valley and the central Appalachians," the company said.

"It's not going to be as snowy as last year," said senior AccuWeather meteorologist Bernie Rayno. But he said to look for at least near-normal to slightly above-normal snowfall, and average to below-average temperatures. He promised more precision next month.

Almanacs

If you don't like that forecast, you can buy a copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac. It says its prognosticators use "a secret formula, devised by the founder of this Almanac in 1792, enhanced by the most-modern scientific calculations based on solar activity and current meteorological data."

There's also a 21st-century disclaimer: "Neither we nor anyone else has as yet gained sufficient insight into the mysteries of the universe to predict the weather with anything resembling total accuracy."

Whatever. While the Old Farmer missed other things - including Isabel - he nailed last winter's cold, snowy winter. The familiar yellow almanac even called the February blizzard, although it was off by a week.

This winter's forecast for the coastal region from Roanoke to Philadelphia calls for another cold winter, especially from mid-November through mid-January. But look for less snow than last year.

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