Looking Back...and Ahead

Shane takes a look at how his winter '09-'10 forecast panned out, and looks ahead to the upcoming spring season.

 

Well, "meteorological winter" (Dec. 1st-Feb. 28th) is now in the rear-view mirror.  How did my forecast leading into the season fare?  All in all, not bad.  I suppose you could think of it like a tedious math/physics problem.  You know, the kind where the final answer is not exactly right, but you get the "jist" of it.  I called for below-average temps for December and January (check on that), above average snowfall (check on that, though we wound up with 3" more than I predicted to make for our snowiest season since 1985!), and a winter that wouldn't be our harshest ever (no sub-zero lows, so check on that).  We fell just 1/2" shy officially of seeing 6" of snow from one storm back in late January, but the snow of 1/29-1/30 still goes down as our largest single-storm snow since March 1996.  I'd say the most glaring "misfires" in my winter forecast dealt with February (thought we might see a pattern flip to "cold" to "warm", did not happen) and the general lack of accumulating snowfall in December (only 0.1" for the month).  If I had to put a grade on my forecast, I would give it a "B".  Not perfect, but not too far off base!

Now it's on to spring, a time for blooming tulips, irises, daffodils...and sometimes severe weather.  Remember our good friend "El Nino"?  It was one of the players in our weather pattern this winter.  We still have "El Nino" conditions present in the Central Pacific right now, and at least according to NOAA, will continue to have them right on through the spring into early summer.  Recall that El Nino refers to warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures near the equator in the Pacific Ocean.  It appears, however, that there will be a gradual breakdown of this El Nino over the next several months.  This is key because past history shows we often tend to be rather dry during the spring when that happens.  Remember 2007?  We came into that spring with a collapsing El Nino.  We also came into that spring with below normal rainfall, a trend that persisted and only worsened as we moved into the summer.   I don't think we'll be as dry this go round as we were three years ago, but to me it seems likely that drier-than-average conditions will continue through the next three months for our region.  I say this not only based on what happened in '07, but because of what a weakening El Nino typically brings:  A less active southern/subtropical jet stream (especially the later you go into the spring) with fewer opportunities for seeing major storm systems spin up. 

So, does that mean a quieter-than-normal severe season for us?  Not necessarily.  While it's my belief that "La Nina" seasons tend to spur bigger, badder tornado outbreaks for our area (1971, '74, and 2008 come to mind), El Nino seasons tend to be more of a crap shoot with regard to frequency of severe weather events.  For example, in 1978, our area was emerging from an El Nino winter that was snowy and harsh with no major severe outbreaks until mid-Spring.  On May 12th that year, several strong, long-tracked twisters tocuhed down in South-Central KY.  One of those caused quite a bit of damage in Hopkinsville.  Fast-forward to 1998.  Sometimes all you need to do is stick the word "April" in front of 1998 for many folks in Bowling Green and Glasgow to know immediately the weather event being referenced.  The big outbreak of tornadoes and large hail-producing storms in Kentucky and Tennessee that year happened with El Nino conditions carrying over from the winter season.  The winter preceding that event was quite mild for us, however, so that's where the similarities end when it comes to forecasting what this season will bring.  Not to mention, this El Nino is not as strong as the one leading up to '98.  Along those same lines, other years with weakening El Ninos during spring (1987, 2005) were quiet seasons in terms of tornado activity in the region.  Of course, Fall 2005 was a different story, but we were into a La Nina by that point. 

So how do I think this season plays out?  I mentioned the season likely featuring below normal precip.  I look for slightly below average temperatures overall (though with plenty of fluctuations over the next three months).  I also look for a slow start to the severe season for the U.S. in general, with a more natural progression of south to north severe weather "hot spots" as spring progresses.  Keep in mind, peak time for storms with damaging winds, large hail, and tornadoes generally runs from April to June for Kentucky.  While I don't look for a great frequency of big-time severe outbreaks for the lower Ohio Valley this season, I do think we will have one (possibly two) sizable events...one of which could feature strong, long-tracked tornadoes.  I think the greatest potential for seeing that lies from mid-April to mid-May this year.  There will be numerous other "minor episodes"...the kind that bring scattered strong/marginally severe storms, with perhaps a few more widespread severe events between April and June (nothing atypical there).  I don't see this being the kind of season that yields a record-setting outbreak for this region (a la April '74 or February '08), but please remember:  All it takes is ONE destructive tornado to make a season memorable for a community!! 

With that said, I suggest coming into this season as I would any other severe weather season, and that's being prepared for anything!  If you don't have a battery-powered weather radio, get one.  If you don't have a safety plan in place for your home, get one.   The key is to be ready.

Shane

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