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COMMENTARY

It's been an easy winter so far, but what's coming next?

Don Paul

There’s no getting around the obvious. While not near a record-breaking snowless or mild season, this winter has not been much of a challenge to navigate, up to this point.

Let’s check our bearings.

January snowfall at Buffalo is nearly a foot below average at 13 inches. For the cold weather season, we’ve had 41.7 inches, which is 19 inches below average.

Last year’s snowy January had us up to 90 inches on Jan. 31, by comparison. Even with some seasonably chilly days this past week, our monthly mean temperature has a large positive anomaly, running 8.4 degrees above average.

Some of that excess warmth is reflected in the Lake Erie temperature at Buffalo, now at 35 degrees. That’s 2 degrees above average. The warmth has not been confined to our immediate region, and that’s quite evidence in extremely low Great Lakes ice cover.

For the end of January, 6.7% coverage is simply extraordinary. Last year told a different story.

Note the difference between this year and last for Lake Erie ice coverage. While Lake Erie is mainly wide open this year, by this date last year, it was more than 85% ice-covered:

(NOAA Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System)

Some parts of the eastern United States have moved closer to breaking records. My industrious friend Eric Fisher, at WBZ in Boston, just posted yearly snow totals for Boston. Boston, even though it receives on average much less snow than Buffalo, has been hit by legendary, destructive blizzards and Nor’easters many times. The snow totals for last year and this year are, so far, the second-lowest two-year totals on record for Boston.

Just 5.2 inches over the last two winters, thus far, raises my eyebrow. Central Park, New York City, is a little ahead at 4.8 inches. Philadelphia? Only 0.3 inches! Washington, D.C.? That's 0.6 inches. There are, at least, some cities in Connecticut and Rhode Island that have made it into the 10- to 15-inch range.

Where might we head in February? Last year, Buffalo began February with 23 inches on the ground, courtesy of January. Then a marked thaw moved in for a week, and by Feb. 6, we were down to a trace. That’s a lot of short-term melting. This year, we will begin the month with a trace on the ground and above-average temperatures, though nothing springlike over the weekend. With the average high at the start of February still at 31 degrees, Sunday’s high in the upper 30s could be called almost mild … were it not for the brisk breeze that strengthens late in the day. We probably will see a period of snow showers toward Saturday evening, which would produce some slick spots on the roads after dark.

On Super Bowl Sunday, temps will edge up a few degrees, but the wind chill will become significant by afternoon, ruining any perceived warming. West-southwest winds on the Niagara Frontier may reach 25-35 mph, with gusts over 40 by later in the day, along with a few wet snow or mixed showers blowing horizontally in the above-freezing temperatures.

Monday and Tuesday will bring significant moderation, with readings heading well into the 40s on Monday, dipping to 40 on Tuesday. Some modest snow or a mix may arrive for a portion of Wednesday, as readings return to the mid-30s. There are no current hints of a major storm system affecting our region at that time.

There are, however, at least a few hints of a more potent area of low pressure drawing near late next week. Precipitation type so far in advance in the absence of deep polar air cannot be determined with any confidence. The European model favors snow, with the American GFS pointing to rain or a mix, and the Canadian GEM favoring rain. Hence, it's not worth speculating on precipitation type.

True polar air will be in short supply, but we don’t have to be in the deep freeze to get snow, though the milder temperatures make significant lake-effect snow less likely. In the more useful ensemble means (many multiple runs of a model to gauge a mean/average pattern further out in time), the European shows some shots of seasonably chilly air by mid and late next week, but with little staying power.

As I’ve written in past articles, a more persistent tall ridge of high pressure over western North America, with another blocking ridge near Greenland, forces the polar jet stream to buckle southward into the central or eastern United States, delivering longer-lasting cold outbreaks closer to us. There are no such signs of such a persistent pattern setting up soon. As posted by Dr. Judah Cohen, the 6- to 10-day American GFS ensemble shows the western ridge is way out over the Pacific and there is a low pressure trough instead of a blocking ridge over Greenland. Thus, the tendency for colder temperatures will be found more often over the western United States, not the east. The color shading tells the story.

I can leave our skiers (sorry, not you snowmobilers) with some optimistic news. Conditions at most resorts are decent to good. You can check out your favorite locations on this link.

Here are few Friday morning views, to provide evidence: Morning Star, Holiday ValleyKissing Bridge Holly CamHolimont.

Since no significant thaw is likely this weekend, it appears to this admitted nonskier that you’re good to go, folks.

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