February 23, 2012
By Dan Namowitz
Check your junk mail folder. It may contain an old email announcing that winter was canceled for 2011-2012.
Highlight the message and click “not junk.”
Read it if you want to—but you already know the contents. So does everyone else who didn’t get the memo, and for those whose livelihoods depends on knowing such things, it would have been nice to have that information a couple of months ago.
On the other hand, if you predicted that last year would see a hurricane in Vermont, the magnificent fall collapse of the Red Sox, the Giants winning Super Bowl XLVI, and the beginning of the non-winter of 2011-2012, go out and buy yourself a lottery ticket, because you can’t miss.
Predicting stuff is a tricky business. If you do it for a living, there’s little escaping a bad outcome unless it is most elegantly hedged.
So what do the pros do after a prediction of colder weather for much of the country from January through March comes up against reports of “the winter that wasn’t” and headlines proclaiming “ Winter gone mild”?
They predict the next three months, of course. Which brings us back to our friends at Weather Services International (WSI), who once again have addressed the unenviable task of predicting the unpredictable so that entities large and small can place complex economic bets that are subject to risk from the weather.
In December, WSI’s prediction was for a colder-than-normal January and February in all regions of the country except the Southeast and South-Central areas—a prognostication that we dutifully presented along with seasonally appropriate advice about safe and comfortable winter flying.
Now, WSI says, it’s going to be cold in many places—really.
WSI said it “expects the upcoming period (March-May) to average colder than normal across much of the western U.S. and parts of the Northeast, with above-normal temperatures elsewhere.”
WSI Chief Meteorologist Dr. Todd Crawford said in a release that the expectation is “consistent with a waning La Nina event. Further, if there continues to be a general lack of North Atlantic atmospheric blocking, the warmer-than-normal temperatures will be more significant and more widespread across the eastern US this spring.”
La Nina, diva of drought. NASA saw her peaking in January; WSI’s prediction corroborates that view.
Come to find out also that “blocking” refers to a high pressure system camping out over Greenland, deflecting the cold polar air south. No blocking, no seriously cold weather, as we have learned in recent weeks. AccuWeather.com meteorologist Meghan Evans explained and illustrated the phenomenon on Dec. 31, 2011, when signs were already pointing to a winter in name only.
Is it still too soon to call it a mild winter?
Not if you believe the experts.
“The headline from the winter of 2011-2012 is that there is no winter! It's a meteorological conundrum that, frankly, has the staff here at The Weather Channel stunned. No one more so than our on-air meteorologists who love tracking winter storms,” said TWC in the online article “Winter gone mild.” (Instead of reporting on winter’s typical tingly torments, they calmly confronted the climatologic chaos, communicating cases of flowers in bloom and other odd examples of winter busting out all over.)
As a whole, the news business reacted to the big story of a missing winter as you might expect it to—by improvising. Usually, tough winters are journalistically packed with grim reports of towns overspending plowing budgets, and running short of road salt and sand; flat-roofed buildings collapsing under the weight of heavy snows; cars colliding at intersections obscured by towering drifts.
The good news for journalists is that mild winters offer opportunities for grim reports too. Tune in to a blizzard of bad news about financial havoc for ski areas, sap running prematurely in the maple trees, potential drought caused by the lack of snow cover, and apocalyptic interviews about whether the weird weather means that the end is near.
Whatever your take on the news—and whether or not you ever needed a preheat before flying this winter—start planning your spring aviating, because if spring hasn’t reached your area yet, it’s now safe to predict that it’s just around the corner.
Weather and Seasons
Thunderstorms didn’t get their fearsome reputation just from the extreme conditions a pilot can encounter by stumbling into, or too close to one. The reputation also hints at the speed at which thunderstorms can grow from puffy cumulus clouds into giant, opaque cumulonimbus.
A single thunderstorm can contain almost every weather-related hazard to pilots--high winds, limited visibility, hail, microbursts, and icing just to name a few. The Air Safety Institute just completed Storm Week, its weeklong education campaign to raise awareness of thunderstorms. Now is the perfect time to hold a club safety seminar and utilize the many ASI tools to help understand how ATC and weather briefers can steer you clear of the storms or help pilots make the decision to stay on the ground.
If a VFR pilot’s worst nightmare is to blunder into solid clouds, armed only with basic instrument flying skills, a similarly scary scenario awaits the instrument pilot who bets on sneaking through a stormy sector, and loses.