Every year as autumn transitions to winter, we are bombarded with a seemingly endless supply of “winter weather outlooks.” The “Farmer’s Almanac” outlooks may be the most well-known; the 2020 Farmer’s Almanac gives us “Chilly, Normal Precipitation” this winter, while the Old Farmer’s Almanac (a separate company) says the 2019–20 winter will be “Wet (Or Worse!)” for the Pacific Northwest. Of course, most people acknowledge that both Almanac forecasts should be treated as a source of entertainment, as they use their own “proprietary formulas” (mainly based off solar activity) to make their outlooks and are, on-average, less accurate than a simple coin flip.
Seasonal forecasting is a tremendously desirable skill. If you are a hydrologist and can forecast how much snow will fall in the Columbia River watershed during the winter, you’ll help people plan accordingly for spring runoff season. If you are a natural gas trader and see the potential for a much colder-than-average winter, you can buy gas options ahead of time at a lower price and sell them at a higher price when the cold weather hits and heating demand skyrockets. But unfortunately, even NOAA’s state-of-the-art climate models have little skill forecasting temperature and no consistent precipitation skill. However, just because we can’t forecast the temperature or precipitation months in advance doesn’t mean we can’t at least have a few insights into what the winter might hold.
One of the best seasonal predictors is whether the Tropical Pacific is in an El Niño (warmer-than-average), La Niña (cooler-than-average), or “Neutral” state. El Niño years typically give us warmer and calmer-than-average weather and La Niñas tend to give us cooler/wetter-than-average weather with heavy mountain snow.
Neutral years, on the other hand, are really a mixed bag. They bring normal temperatures and precipitation on average, but they can run the gamut from cold and snowy to warm and boring, and of course everything in between. Interestingly, many of our biggest windstorms and floods—including the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 and Hanukkah Eve Storm of 2006—occurred in Neutral years. It’s impossible to forecast individual storms weeks ahead of time but having a Neutral winter may slightly increase the probability of a significant weather event.
Regardless of whether we end up warmer, wetter, calmer or snowier than normal, I’m fairly certain that the next few months will be dark and gloomy. A healthy diet and the occasional bit of fresh air go a long way towards improving your mood and energy when there is so little light in the sky, and I’ve found that Vitamin D supplements can be a big help as well. Have a great rest of 2019, and I’ll catch you in 2020!
Charlie Phillips, a Madrona resident, received his B.S. in atmospheric sciences from the University of Washington and works in Portland as a meteorologist. Check out his weather website at to charlie.weathertogether.net.