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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/28/2008

Shoveling Out From a Snow Job

By Steve Scolnik

At a recent dinner seminar that I attended, upon hearing that I was a Capital Weather Gang member, an otherwise respectable appearing gentleman asked me how global warming could be occurring in light of the "record-breaking cold winter." I must admit that I was a bit mystified at first, since that claim was not at all consistent with any data I had seen.

I soon discovered, however, that the reports of snowfall records which were being broken in certain northern areas from Wisconsin across southern Canada and into northern New England were being spun into another of the seemingly endless series of politically motivated "proofs" that there is no such thing as global warming. Even the NYTi's normally circumspect science writer Andrew Revkin was drawn in to the hype with an article titled, Skeptics on Human Climate Impact Seize on Cold Spell.

It turns out the cooling claims are wrong on multiple levels.

First of all, as pointed out recently by our own Andrew Freedman and by Dr. Jeff Masters in his blog at Weather Underground ("If global warming is occurring, why was the winter of 2007-2008 so cold and snowy?"), on average, it just wasn't that cold. Any winter which is above average by definition is not cold, and certainly not record-breaking, even if it was cooler than the last seven winters. In fact, globally it was the 16th warmest December-February out of 128 years, putting it in the top 13%, according to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.


Seasonal snowfall total vs. average December-March temperature, Washington DC. Solid line is best-fit trend. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Capital Weather Gang, from NWS data. Snowflake image from Kenneth Libbrecht.

The temperature record in itself should be the end of the story, but "What about all that snow?", you may be asking. Snowfall records crashing from Wisconsin to Maine! Git out the mukluks and the woolly mammoth traps, maw, it's the new Ice Age! It's been observed in other contexts that the view from Inside the Beltway frequently diverges from what is usually perceived as reality in the rest of the world, and a similar effect may be at work in this case. A paltry 4.9" for the season with March rapidly winding down puts this winter into a tie for 12th least snowy since 1899. From that perspective of a snow-starved DC region, it may seem quite plausible that more snow equates with colder temperatures. The chart shows Washington seasonal snowfall totals plotted against average temperatures from December through March. As might be expected, the trend line slopes upward toward higher snowfall with colder temperatures. However, there's a lot of scatter to the data. Statistically speaking, the so-called "R-squared", a measure of how well the line fits the points, indicates that only 26% of the variability of the seasonal snowfall is accounted for by the temperature alone.

The average Washington winter temperature is well above freezing at about 37° (not even including March), so that means much colder than average winters will tend to have more than the usual amount of snow. What about areas that are cold enough that most of their winter precipitation is usually snow to begin with? Madison, Wisconsin is one of those places which set a snowfall record this winter. Their long-term average temperatures are: December 23°, January 17.3°, February 22.6°. Of the three winter months this season, only February was significantly below average at -5.8°. December was only -1.8° and January was very slightly above (+0.1°). For the season as a whole, the average was below the historical level, but not record-breaking.


Average precipitable water departure from normal, 12/1/07 through 2/13/08. Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA/NWS

The real story at Madison was the precipitation: There was more snow because there was more moisture, not because temperatures were exceptionally cold. December's 33.5" of snow was generated from a precipitation total nearly double the long-term average, January's precipitation was also nearly double the average, and February's was close to triple. The chart from NOAA shows much more moisture than usual in the lowest 3 miles of the atmosphere on average for most of the winter between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. Although Wisconsin was only marginally colder than average overall, the southern portion of the state was in the "Record Wettest" category. For more details on "Why is it snowing so much in Southern Wisconsin this winter?", see an analysis by the NWS Science and Operations Officer in Milwaukee.

Moving eastward, Caribou, Maine set a snowfall record with a total of over 15 feet. What were the temperature differences from average? December was -2.9°, January +3.7°, and February 0.0, so the three main winter months averaged slightly above the long-term mean. Here again, the story was moisture, not temperature, with a few tenths of an inch less than four feet of snow piling up in February on more than double the normal amount of precipitation.


January monthly snowfall total vs. average temperature, Montreal, Quebec. Solid line is best-fit trend. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Capital Weather Gang, from Environment Canada data. Snowflake image from Kenneth Libbrecht.

Finally, to the north, the record-breaking snow in Montreal was enough to provoke an eruption of snow rage. The temperature record, however, tells a very different story. Montreal, along with most of southeastern Canada in the heavy-snow zone, averaged above normal (upper 1/3) in the December-February period, according to Environment Canada. Looking at the longer term history for the middle winter month of January, the chart shows that the temperature-snowfall distribution is all over the map. The trend line is almost completely flat, and, to two decimal places, 0% of the variability of the snowfall is explained by the temperature. In fact, the average snowfall for the ten coldest Januaries is 7% lower than the average for the ten warmest Januaries.

The bottom line is that record snow doesn't necessarily imply record cold or even below average cold. The title of the seminar I was attending when I was asked about this "record-breaking cold"? "Negotiating with Bullies and Nut Cases."

By Steve Scolnik  | March 28, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Local Climate  
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Comments

Another sign of global warming may indeed be an increased snow-fall in a particular year, as the shift in average temperatures puts stress on an otherwise normal seasonal variations. Chaos Theory shows that as a complex system undergoes fundamental change, stronger variations occur in all directions, including cold swings.
Further, I don't consider increased snowfall to be a sign of colder weather, but rather a push of warmer, wet air into otherwise cold regions....

Posted by: Ollabelle | March 28, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Ollabelle, That's a very perceptive observation. The current state of knowledge doesn't support a lot of confidence in predictions for specific locations, but such a scenario is very plausible, so the skeptics in this case are actually promoting data which contradicts their conclusions.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Good read, Steve. Thanks!

Posted by: jtf | March 28, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Sorry about the broken link to the southern Wisconsin story. Jeff Masters also seems to have just reorganized his blog. Will fix them when I get home. (Currently enjoying the super-fast connection at the Apple Store in Montgomery Mall. Thank you for your hospitality :))

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Very good article. I like the comparison of DC to other regions. People in the mid-atlantic associate snow with abnormal cold because our average temperatures are so high that if there isn't abnormal cold in place, we'll get rain. It *has* to be below average to snow. Thus, our snowiest years tend to be the coldest years.

Up north though, the average temperature is so low that rain isn't in the equation. It can be above average, and still snow. Indeed, as Ollabelle mentions, global warming could actually lead to increased snow in some areas, as a warmer atmosphere leads to increased instability and warmer oceans lead to juicier storms. The average rain/snow line will retreat north as a result of GW, but those who remain to the north of it may well get MORE snow than in prior years. Only those "border" areas that used to be north of the line some of the time, and are now south of it most of the time, will have marked drops in snowfall (DC is a good example, sadly).

Posted by: Jim in Blacksburg | March 28, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

The Wisconsin snow story is here.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

J in Bburg,
You hit the nail right on the head.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

If the Jeff Masters link points you to a bunch of comments, scroll up to the top of that post.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I hear that claim frequently: How can there be global warming if there's so much snow? I just tell them that global warming doesn't mean that it will never snow anywhere ever again. (I work for a science magazine and am hearing that claim from other scientists.)

Posted by: cab91 | March 28, 2008 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Steve is back! And I even agree this time :) (not that it matters, just glad Steve is back stoking the fires).

By the way, worth pointing out this accurate statement: "The average Washington winter temperature is well above freezing at about 37° (not even including March), so that means much colder than average winters will tend to have more than the usual amount of snow." This is why I CONTINUALLY harp on people complaining when daytime temps are in the 40s and it isn't snowing. It generally doesn't snow here. Sometimes it does, but we don't get the Madison winters people think we are supposed to be getting (global warming or not).

Posted by: Southside FFX | March 28, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post--the global warming skeptics will seize on anything. Perhaps they were trained at the Tobacco Institute.

Posted by: xcurmudgeon | March 28, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

If you check into the backgrounds of the serial skeptics, you will find that some of them have a history of telling you that second hand smoke, toxic waste, and pesticides are good for you.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Great post. It was a very long Easter dinner listening to a couple of people make statements such as "Hell, we can't tell no better when a Tornado will hit than 150 years ago", "Weathermen get to be wrong all the time and get paid for it." and my personal favorite "I like the Weather Channel except for all the forecasts." I bit my tongue. It was torture.

Posted by: John - Burke | March 28, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Please don't make this otherwise excellent information site into a political outlet. I mean I know was post is sponsoring, but...

Posted by: Anonymous | March 28, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Folks:
Be careful about adopting the mindset that it takes a very cold winter to produce copious amounts of snow. If you really believe this, you are incorrect.

A wonderful example would be the winter of 76-77, which was the coldest winter of the past 60 years. We had below normal snowfall that winter because the storm track was suppressed far to the south by the brutal cold.

Storms tend to follow the demarcation zone between cold and warm air masses, often referred to as stationay fronts.

Re. "global warming" and snowfall. The average temperatures have not changed enough during the past 100 years, to significantly affect snowfall, and are not likely to during our lifetime. Many other variables determine the amount of winter snowfall.

Anyone who points to a winter of record snowfall to question the validity of "global warming" is either somewhat foolish or disingenuous. The same can be said of someone who points to a cycle of snow starved winters and proclaims global warming as the culprit.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | March 28, 2008 5:09 PM | Report abuse

If you're concerned about politicization of a scientific issue, please complain to people like this guy. Notice that all of his links point back to the Senate committee. We gave you actual data and pointers to the original sources.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 28, 2008 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Yay, Steve is back, and with an excellent data-driven post to boot!

To the anonymous poster worried about politics here: You must be new. Long before joining wapo, capitalweather has addressed climate issues such as global warming - and always with data.

Posted by: ~sg | March 28, 2008 7:18 PM | Report abuse

Southside FFX:

I don't think anyone on this board expects a Wisconsin winter in the mid-atlantic. They might like one but they don't expect it. They do expect at least one laregish storm and several smaller ones though. The fact is, snow does normally fall in our area, generally several times each winter. Most places in Virginia were at about 1/4 of their average this year.

Now, if we have an average year and weenies keep complaining, then you can come after us =P.

Posted by: Jim in Blacksburg | March 28, 2008 11:48 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Jim. We can usually expect at least one nice, beautiful, significant accumulating snowfall with a couple of smaller ones on the side. When we hit the jackpot, like the blizzard year, a really big snow comes, as well. It's wrong to criticize us snowlovers for complaining a bit about a paltry

Posted by: missy | March 29, 2008 12:40 AM | Report abuse

(? where's the rest of my post?)
a paltry under 5" winter.

Posted by: missy | March 29, 2008 12:47 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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