Are we in for another record-breaking cold winter? Last winter was the coldest in a century and the second coldest on record. It led to high heating bills and propane shortages. Many of us have already started preparing for this winter. But will this winter be as cold as last winter?
Below zero temperatures are expected when winter comes in Wisconsin. But just how cold will this winter be? To find out I looked at everything from historical patterns to long term forecasts – even El Niño. We'll start by comparing last winter with the previous record setting winter.
We had 54 days last winter with the mercury in the negatives. That's nearly twice as many as normal. The only recorded winter with more was in 1916 to 1917. Back then, the next winter also hit the record books at number 6 with 47 subzero days. Those winters were the 3rd and 4th coldest on record. Does that mean this winter will land in the record books? Not necessarily, but it is possible.
The Farmer's Almanac says that it's more than just possible. Their forecasters predict “stinging” cold for our part of the county. The almanac claims to be right 80% of the time. Last winter they did predict “biting cold”. However, they add a significant caveat for this winter. “An El Niño could result in … a milder winter for the nation's frigid northern tier.”
We can't speak for the science behind their secret formula. But science certainly suggests that an El Niño would derail their stinging cold forecast.
So what is El Niño? You might think of Chris Farley's Saturday Night Live skit: "El Niño is Spanish for... the Niño "
El Nino is actually Spanish for the little boy or the Christ Child. South American fisherman gave it the name in the 1600's. They noticed it usually happened in December so they named for the religious season. But what is it? It is above average surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. This causes the jet stream over North America to change bringing warmer air to our area.
Chief Meteorologist Justin Loew says "that means during the winter, we don't have a jet stream that's coming down from canada and bringing repeated events of cold air and snow. So typically during an El Niño winter it'll be a lot milder."
Forecasters from the Climate Prediction Center give a 58 percent chance that a weak El Niño will develop by January. They say it will likely last into spring. So that looks like a strike against another record setting winter.
The Climate Prediction Center also gives a 33% chance that northern Wisconsin will be warmer than normal this winter. However, their winter prediction for central Wisconsin has the same probability of a warmer-than-normal winter as a colder-than-normal one. Their forecast factors in many things from El Niño to long term models. So why don't they give something more specific?
Have you heard of the butterfly effect? The term comes from weather forecasting where small changes can lead to very different results – like a butterfly causing a tornado. It's why even with the best science doesn't always mean a perfect forecast.
In spite of the butterfly effect, the StormTrack 9 Weather Team forecasts a bit milder winter with near normal snowfall. However, we will still have some outbreaks of cold air.