By Tim Leeds 

What'll winter be like? Who knows

Different predictions from different forecasters


October 21, 2013

File photo

Havre Fire Department firefighters D.J. Olson, front, and Cody McLain shovel wet snow Nov. 16, 2010, off of the sidewalk in front of the fire station during an early heavy snowstorm. Weather forecasters are all over the map for what winter is likely to bring north-central Montana this year.

The winter forecast for this part of the country is - as usual - anyone's guess. A major predictor in the Pacific Ocean is not giving any signs at the moment, and different prognosticators are giving completely different forecasts.

This as winter weather already is hitting some areas, with a blizzard hitting South Dakota Oct. 3-5 killing two people and tens-of-thousands of head of cattle, dropping several feet of snow.

Snow fell this weekend in Minnesota and North Dakota, The Weather Channel reports.

A cold snap is expected to hit the Dakotas and Great Lakes region this week, with a chance of snow also coming through the region and then stretching east into the northeast later into the week.

National Weather Service is making no real winter prediction for the area including Montana, saying the chance of receiving above- or below-normal precipitation or temperatures is about the same as normal temps and precip. The forecast does call for above-normal levels of precipitation across most of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the December to January part of the seasonal forecast, with no likelihood of higher- or lower-than-normal temperatures during that period.

The rest of the seasonal forecast, in three-month periods through May, lists no likelihood of above-normal or below-normal temperatures or precipitation for this region. Weather Service reports "uncertainty remains quite high" about what the weather will bring to this region in a report issued Thursday.

The forecast does call for hotter weather through the southern part of the country, centered on Texas early in the winter, and in Florida, with the longer-range forecast predicting the warmer temperatures will stretch across the south and the eastern part of the United States later on in the season. Lower-than-average levels of precipitation also are forecast for parts of that region, much of which is still reeling from severe drought, through parts of the winter.

On the other hand, The Farmers' Almanac has a different prediction - different for all of the country than the Weather Service forecast - saying the central part of the United States including Montana will be piercingly cold with about-normal snowfall, while the hot and dry weather Weather Service expects across the south is not going to happen.

Meanwhile, the Old Farmers' Almanac predicts colder-than-normal winter temperatures here, with lower-than-normal precipitation and snowfall.

Accuweather reports on its website that Montana and the Pacific Northwest should expect significantly higher-than-normal precipitation, in rain and snow, while Montana will see below-normal temperatures and the Pacific Northwest will be above-normal.

In September, The Weather Channel predicted that from October through December, a cool spell would hit the north-central part of the United States, including northern and eastern Montana and through the Dakotas into the Great Lakes region. The Weather Channel was expected to release a more thorough winter forecast, but it was not available by printing deadline this morning.

The winters in the last few years have been wildly varying, and often confounded meteorologists' predictions.

In the winter of 2010-11, cold and snow hit early - mid-November - and pretty well stayed past March.

Many forecasters predicted an even wetter and colder winter the next year, but then the 2011-12 winter stayed dry through much of the season.

After bone-dry fall, the region saw about its normal precipitation in January and February - not much - then a massive storm hit in March, adding to the nearly 2 inches of precipitation that fell by the end of the month, 1 ½ inches more than normal, and more than doubling the yearly precipitation above the normal amount.

High levels of precipitation continued through June, but that stopped in mid-July, and the dry spell ran to October. September saw Havre receive less than a fifth of an inch, with a normal of more than an inch.

It again turned around in October, and Havre - and much of the north-central through northeastern part of the state - was sitting pretty good for water levels, when May brought as much rain as six months normally sees to the area - or more - again leading to flooding that led to a federal disaster declaration.

At this point in 2013, Havre has recorded 17.31 inches of precipitation at the station at the airport west of town, with the normal amount through the end of the year about 11.2 inches. Havre's average level of precipitation to date for today is 10.2 inches.

But what will come next is unknown.

One of the main forecasters of U.S. weather - ENSO, or the El Niño/Southern Oscillation - is not giving forecasters much to work with this year.

In an El Niño condition, the temperature of the equatorial Pacific Ocean is warmer, which increases the chance of cooler, wetter winters in the south and warmer, drier winters in this part of the country.

The reverse, La Niña, with cooler water in the equatorial Pacific, increases the chance of cooler, wetter weather in this part of the United States and warmer, drier winters in the south.

But this year, ENSO appears to be neutral, with no impact on how the weather might fall in 2013-14.

Another system, which tended to have a longer-term impact on local winters, is leaving the more steady pattern it used to follow, also creating uncertainty in forecasting. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which primarily looks at temperatures of the tropics and Northern Pacific, such as in the region of Alaska, had fallen into about 20- or 30-year patterns, with cooler water bringing slightly cooler and wetter winters to this area from about 1977 through 2007 or 2008.

But that water temperature is fluctuating much more than it had in most of the last century, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reports. The northern Pacific temperatures were dropping, then rising, rapidly in the last six to eight years, with the most recent trend cooler waters in that region.

The forecast deals with averages, rather than specific events. Even if a record-setting storm brought cold temperatures and significant snowfall, the average over the period could still be at or below average levels.

The forecast also does not predict that the weather could be above or below normal levels - simply that there is an even chance for any type of weather to occur, whereas in the south, warmer-than-average temperatures are more likely to occur than average or below-average temperatures.


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