So far, the similarities between this month and December 2001 are striking.
The above-normal temperatures. The absence of snow. The water in Lake Erie warmer than usual.
But as the region gets ready for a 60-degree or warmer weekend, one question lingers: Will this month end with snow piles, too?
Keep in mind, Buffalo’s last warmest start to December ended as its snowiest month ever.
In one of Old Man Winter’s grinchiest moves – even by Buffalo standards – more than 20 inches of snow fell on Christmas Eve 2001 at the Buffalo airport to start a five-day-long lake-effect snowstorm that buried areas from Lockport to East Aurora.
Over the next four days, 61 more inches of snow fell.
GALLERY: The snowstorm of December 2001
Luckily, past performance does not guarantee future results. So just because December 2001 started warm and ended snowy doesn’t mean this December will turn out the same way.
In fact, a repeat of December 2001 looks extremely unlikely, according to the National Weather Service.
“Every year is different,” said meteorologist Jon Hitchcock. “You pretty much need a dozen things to line up for that type of event to happen.”
The storm that blew in December 2001 turned what was to be the warmest December in Buffalo into its snowiest month ever.
The 82.7 inches of snow bested the 68.4 inches in December 1985 and the 68.3 inches in the infamous January 1977 by more than a foot.
By this date in 2001, Buffalo had recorded a measly 0.1 inch of snow. The month’s first 24 days that year were above-normal with a three-day string in the 60s, Dec. 4-6.
Then came Christmas Eve.
“The most impressive thing was how persistent that pattern was,” Hitchcock said. “It stayed in place for five days.”
Many of the records set between Dec. 24 and 28, 2001, still stand. They include:
• Snowiest Christmas Eve – 20.5 inches.
• All-time deepest snow pack – 44 inches.
• Snowiest week in Buffalo – 81.5 inches.
The wide-open, warm waters of Lake Erie fueled the Christmas Eve “thunder snow,” which fell at rates of 4 inches per hour.
So that raises the question about the wide-open, warm waters of Lake Erie right now.
As of Thursday, Lake Erie’s temperature was 45 degrees. It has not been as warm this late into the season since, yes, 2001.
On Dec. 24, 2001, the lake’s temperature was 43 degrees – its warmest of the date in 70 years.
So the two Decembers have that in common.
But getting a repeat of 2001 would need more to happen.
In 2001, a low pressure system stalled between the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay, setting up the perfect mix of atmospheric conditions: available moisture, freezing temperatures and a persistent southwest wind.
“The big thing in 2001 was for those five days, the wind lined up in just the right direction,” Hitchcock said.
There’s nothing in the forecast or current weather pattern to suggest such a storm system like that.
But it’s not impossible, either.
“It does look like it’s going to turn colder as we turn into the second half of the month,” Hitchcock said.
Does that mean a white Christmas in Buffalo?
“It’s a little early to tell,” he said. “If we get the timing right, there’s definitely a chance we could have a white Christmas.”
Just not like 2001.