Carolinas residents can prepare for another winter of cold weather outbreaks and more snow and ice than usual, according to government scientists and forecasters with one of the country’s leading private meteorological firms.
The term “polar vortex” was even mentioned by some forecasters, referring to the condition that caused record cold weather and frequent snowstorms last winter – although meteorologists said the impact of the vortex is expected to be more intermittent this time.
Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Accu-Weather issued long-range winter forecasts Thursday, and they agreed that the Southeast will be wetter than usual. They also said cold weather – especially in January and early February – will be more of a problem than normal.
In addition, the Carolinas will be along a storm track that could create flooding problems when temperatures are not below freezing.
The polar vortex, a strong weather system that typically remains at very high latitudes, dropped into southern Canada last winter. Charlotte’s average temperature in January was 4.6 degrees below seasonal norms. Early February also was quite cold, and Charlotte received 9.3 inches of snow during the winter – about 80 percent more than average.
Forecasters expect variable conditions in November and December but said the polar vortex will become a player again after the new year.
“I think, primarily, we’ll see that happening in mid-January into February,” Accu-Weather long-range forecaster Paul Pastelok said. “But it’s not going to be the same type of situation as we saw last year, not as persistent.”
Meteorologists see two forces at play this winter: a weak El Niño condition, with warmer than usual surface water temperatures in the eastern Pacific, and a blocking pattern at higher latitudes, delivering outbreaks of Arctic air into the United States.
El Niño tends to send frequent storm systems from southern California across the Southwest, Texas and the South. That is why the Carolinas are expected to see a wetter than usual winter. How much snow and ice falls in the Carolinas will depend on whether the storm systems arrive when the cold air is in place.
Stronger El Niño conditions in past years have caused heavy rain and flooding in the Carolinas in February and March. Those storm systems also are often the catalyst for tornado outbreaks in late winter from Texas eastward to the Carolinas.
NOAA’s official winter forecast calls for a 33 percent chance of colder and wetter than usual conditions this winter in the Charlotte region and the rest of the Carolinas.
Another potential problem will be ice storms, forecasters said. Accu-Weather’s Pastelok said he believes the South will be prone to major icing problems this winter, although he said he sees the greatest threat west of the Carolinas – from Texas and Louisiana northeast to Kentucky.
Yet another problem could come from the Gulf of Mexico. Meteorologists said Gulf waters are warm this autumn, and because that area hasn’t been disturbed by hurricanes, the energy in the warm water could help fuel early winter storms that move up the East Coast.
Meteorologists had good news for the Northwest, Midwest and Great Lakes, where they said conditions will be drier than normal. The news was not good for drought-stricken California, however. El Niño will bring more frequent precipitation to the state, but not enough to relieve the drought, forecasters said.
“While we’re predicting at least a 2 in 3 chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal throughout the state, with such widespread, extreme deficits, recovery will be slow,” said Mike Halpert, acting director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.