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Does a cold November mean we're in for an unusually cold winter?

Don Paul

So far, this November has been notably colder than average. And thanks to one unusually early widespread snowstorm, it has also put Buffalo well ahead of schedule for snowfall.

As of Nov. 19, the monthly mean temperature is 33.7 degrees, which is 9.1 degrees below average. That is a very large anomaly, following a slightly-milder-than-average October. Buffalo snowfall is at 12.6 inches, well above the average of 3.7 inches for the month to this date, and the average of 4.6 inches for the cold season as of Tuesday.

I’ve heard chatter in the supermarket that all of this must mean we’re going to have a colder winter than average, with a couple of nice folks telling me this rather than asking about it. There is some statistical evidence to support a correlation between a colder November being followed by a colder December and January. This tendency can be seen in a recent tweet from University of Alaska climate researcher Brian Brettschneider:

His research shows the correlation to be moderate and, in a few patches, strong in our neck of the woods.

That is reliable data. Then, there is less reliable anecdotal evidence. I’m not a big fan of anecdotal evidence trumping actual statistics because I don’t even trust my own memory, let alone others’ memories. So, I looked a couple of recent years up. In November 2014, our monthly mean was minus 2.4 degrees, but our December mean bounced back to a significant plus 3.9 degrees. January 2015 dropped back to minus 4.5, and February proved to be the mother of all cold months in Buffalo history, at minus 15.4, with an all-time-low mean of 10.9 degrees.

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The very next year, we were plus 5.5 in November and then soared to plus 12.0 in December and stayed warmer than average the rest of the season. While there is clear correlation that season, the old cliché "correlation does not prove causation" holds true. That season the world experienced the first “super" El Niño since 1997-98. Such years release tremendous amounts of excess ocean heat into the global atmosphere, which makes big positive anomalies much more likely.

Not to fear, I’m not going to reach back and go through year after year in this article. I will, though, harken back to an article I wrote about winter seasonal outlooks I wrote in September.

Winter outlooks, in my personal judgment, have seldom worked very well, no matter how much people wish them to work well. Climate change, particularly the rapidly warming polar latitudes, have made sudden, temporary pattern shifts more likely in recent decades. The warmer arctic weakens the polar jet stream and periodically weakens the polar vortex, causing it to sag regionally southward as it delivers polar air. These changes in the vortex cannot be foreseen more than two to three weeks in advance.

With increased instability in large-scale, long-term patterns, we will abandon winter outlooks for now. We can at least look ahead in the near term. To begin with, a lakeshore flood watch (not yet a warning) has been issued for the Lake Erie shoreline from Thursday evening into Friday morning. A strengthening southerly wind Thursday night will veer to the southwest and increase to 25-35 with some gusts of over 40 mph. This may produce lakeshore flooding and erosion, though not of the magnitude of the most recent events. Winds will subside a bit in the afternoon Friday.

From there, we can move on to Sunday's game day. It appears an area of low pressure will begin pulling away to the east, leaving us with a chilly northwest flow and the chance for some scattered lighter snow or mixed showers at least in the morning, as seen in the American GFS model. There may be a bit of slushy snow on the grass, and maybe a few slick spots for early tailgaters.

Early indicators point to a cold west-northwest breeze to add to the chill, but not a truly gusty wind. Temperatures will range from the upper 30s to near 40, but don’t forget to factor in some wind chill.

Looking further ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday, I wouldn’t even touch any finite details on precipitation. Both the GFS and the European models imply a vigorous northwest flow from a deep storm system going by to our north. The ensemble means of those models also imply seasonably chilly temperatures by Thursday, as seen in this European ensemble product. This also suggests strong winds may be a problem by Wednesday night into Thanksgiving.

Presumably, precipitation on Wednesday ahead of this deepening storm would fall as rain, in the warm flow ahead of the low. By Thanksgiving day, as colder rushes in, there may be a transition to mixed or snow showers.

However, the Climate Prediction Center makes the call temperatures will run above average in our region in the 6-10 day period. Some of that relative warmth may be tied to the southerly flow ahead of the storm system to our north I referenced.

For now, I see no sign of another November storm coming our way this year. Of course, based on our climatology, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

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