(WVNS) – It’s that time of the year where we transition from the warmth to the chill that is the approaching winter season here in the two Virginias. Your StormTracker 59 meteorologists have been hard at work, diving into the numbers and data to provide you a local look at what you can expect for the wintry season here in the two Virginias:
- First El Niño season since 2018-2019, which was a weak El Niño season.
- Moderate to strong El Niño likely for entire winter season.
- Snowfall totals for the season are expected to be greater than last season, (which was near or at record low for many) but slightly below in comparison to what we see on average.
- Strong El Niño creates more of a ‘boom’ or ‘bust’ snowfall setup for the two Virginias.
Detailed StormTracker 59 Winter Outlook
The 2023-2024 StormTracker 59 winter weather outlook calls for the following:
- Slightly above average temperatures: Sure, there will be occasional periods where we see below average temperatures with a few cold air masses during the winter, but the overall and general pattern setup suggests conditions for winter to be slightly above average. Last year was one of our warmest winters on record and we should remain below that level of warmth, but El Niño is more often than not indicative of a slightly warmer winter than average.
- Slightly below average snowfall: There should be opportunities that present themselves for snow this season in the two Virginias. We will more than likely have some difficult travel on a couple of occasions from winter storms and we should see a good bit more snow than the record low amount we experienced last winter. However, El Niño and the patterns associated with it indicate that snow will be still below average in comparison to normal.
- El Niño will weaken: El Niño is expected to be moderate to strong for meteorological winter (December to February) but is expected to considerably weaken toward spring in the March-April timeframe. This could allow the strong amplitude of the jet stream out in the Pacific to flatten out a bit, resulting in the general ridging across the central U.S. to weaken and ultimately could make for a cooler end to winter into the start of spring, much like what we experienced last spring here in the two Virginias. That could be of interest for a couple of late season storms if we can get enough chilly air to work in.
What goes into creating our forecast? We take a look at many different patterns, oscillations, historic trends and more. To begin with, let’s take a look at El Niño, one of the biggest factors that will likely lead to impacts for our region:
El Niño and How It Affects Our Weather
El Niño is a climate pattern that occurs in the Pacific Ocean. It, along with its opposite, La Niña, can have big impacts on weather, not just in the United States, but across the world. El Niño occurs when the trade winds weaken in the Pacific Ocean, which results in warmer water being pushed east across the central and eastern Pacific Ocean toward the western U.S. and the west coast of South America.
This results in the polar jet stream (shown above) trending southward over the Pacific and northward over the U.S. and into Canada, which enables warmer air to be more commonplace for much of the northern half of the U.S. with upper-level ridging. That warmer pattern oftentimes will affect areas farther east into the Ohio River Valley as well, prompting average to slightly above average temperatures and slightly drier weather for our region as a result of the effects from that ridge setup. Cooler and more unsettled weather are commonplace farther south into the Gulf Coast area of the U.S. with the Pacific jet stream’s moisture feed.
According to the Climate Prediction Center, there is a 99 percent chance from December to February that we will remain in El Niño and a 60 percent that we will be in strong El Niño (when the Oceanic Niño Index, or ONI, is greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius, indicating warmer than usual conditions in the Pacific) during our meteorological winter from December to February.
Did we mention the ‘boom’ or ‘bust’ potential with El Niño? Though we usually are slightly warmer and slightly drier than average with El Niño in place, the snowiest season ever experienced in Beckley occurred during the 2009 to 2010 season – during a moderate to strong El Niño season, similar to what we are expecting this winter season in terms of El Niño strength.
There is one key feature from the 2009-2010 season though that looks to be missing for this upcoming season: cold air. Very cold air was in place persistently for the first half of that winter from December into early February. In fact, for meteorological winter (December to February), 2009-2010 ranks as the 8th coldest winter Beckley has ever recorded, and it’s the only season in that top 10 that has occurred in the last fifty years. Just about every storm system during the first couple of months of that winter dropped precipitation as snow because the air mass in place was simply so cold. That is not expected to be the case this winter season and is generally not the case with most El Niño seasons.
10 Most Recent El Niño Seasons
Over the last ten El Niño seasons (for the exception of 2002-2003, where no snowfall data is available), seven of those ten seasons produced below average snowfall for the season. One season was very close to average, and two were above average (including the record season of 2009-2010). For those same 10 seasons, six were well above average in temperature, two were close to average and two were well below average. Again, 2009-2010 was the anomaly, which was one of the coldest winters ever recorded:
Most Recent El Niño Seasons (Average snowfall is 62.0″ of snow, average temperature is 33.2 degrees during meteorological winter):
- 2018-2019 (Weak El Niño): 40.3″ of snow, 3.5 degrees above avg. temperatures
- 2015-2016 (Very Strong El Niño): 47.9″ of snow, 3.9 degrees above avg. temperatures
- 2014-2015 (Weak El Niño): 66.2″ of snow, 3.0 degrees below avg. temperatures
- 2009-2010 (Moderate El Niño): 134.1″ of snow, 5.3 degrees below avg. temperatures
- 2006-2007 (Weak El Niño): 28.7″ of snow, 0.1 degrees below avg. temperatures
- 2004-2005 (Weak El Niño): 54.8″ of snow, 1.4 degrees above avg. temperatures
- 1997-1998 (Very Strong El Niño): 85.2″ of snow, 2.1 degrees above avg. temperatures
- 1994-1995 (Moderate El Niño): 44.9″ of snow, 1.8 degrees above avg. temperatures
- 1991-1992 (Strong El Niño): 42.6″ of snow, 4.3 degrees above avg. temperatures
- 1987-1988 (Weak El Niño): 57.1″ of snow, 0.7 degrees below avg. temperatures
Don’t let these statistics come as a buzzkill for snow production. Even though we usually are above average in temperature and are typically below average in snow overall in El Niño seasons, the lowest snowfall total we have experienced in the last ten El Niño seasons is still more than twice what we saw during our record-breaking lack of snow last season, which was only a measly 11.5 inches of snow!
Storm Track Matters
With El Niño especially, storm track will be crucial in determining if we see healthy snowfall from storms this season. There are four main types of low-pressure tracks that each usually provide different outcomes of wintry weather:
- North/Northwest/Northeast Low Track: This setup involves an area of low pressure scooting by our region to our north, whether it is to our northwest, due north or northeast. As a result of the low-pressure system being north, we usually will pick up on warmer air flow from southerly winds, resulting in rain usually.
- Low Pressure Overhead (Usually from the West): When a low-pressure system moves overhead, we usually still see warm air wrap itself into the storm system in our region. Though some snow over the mountaintops are possible, usually we see mainly rain as a result of this setup.
- Southwest Low Track: This setup typically has an area of low pressure to our southwest. Though we typically will have an air mass out ahead of it that is too warm for snow with rain as a result, cold air will usually find its way into the backside of the system, resulting in a few snow showers that typically cause little to no accumulation for the lowlands.
- South/Southeast Low Track: This setup is typically what provides our region with the best chance for seeing impactful storm. A low-pressure system scoots down to our south and with the system’s counterclockwise flow, we end up seeing cold air infiltrate the storm, allowing for precipitation oftentimes to fall as snow. This setup is tricky – if the low pressure system is down to our southeast but is too far south in general, the amount of precipitation (ultimately falling as snow) is limited. The crazy 2009-2010 snowy season saw a couple of perfect setups with southeasterly low-pressure systems (That season was remarkable though even more so as a result of the existing cold air already in place).
For those wondering what our odds of a White Christmas are in our region, the chances historically are pretty low until you head up into the mountains. For most, the odds reside between 10 and 25 percent. With elevation coming into play, those odds increase dramatically up into the mountains, where the odds improve to greater than 50 percent in Pocahontas County. It is more common for us to not experience a White Christmas in most lowland locations than for us to experience one.
No matter what winter weather setup is in place or storm that is on the horizon, know your StormTracker59 team will be there every step of the way, diving into the models, pinpointing tracks, and providing you with the most accurate forecast possible.
Ways to Receive Your Forecast and other weather information:
- On air or here on our website
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