Winter Forecast for Kentucky - 2012/2013 (Updated Nov. 18)

Update as of Nov. 18, 2012:

It is beginning to appear that El Nino may not be ushered into the picture this winter afterall.  During the early part of autumn, the computer model forecasts were projecting a weak to moderate El Nino event to develop as we headed toward winter.  So far, these conditions have had a lot of trouble actually coming to fruition.  We are currently experiencing "neutral" conditions, which obviously means that neither El Nino nor La Nina is ongoing.  There is still some chance that a weak El Nino could develop over the next month or two.  However, most computer modeling is starting to trend toward more neutral conditions prevailing this winter.

So what does that mean for winter in Kentucky now?  Well, what it means is that all the emphasis is going to be placed upon the other global indices that we look at such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Pacific/North American Pattern, and the Arctic Oscillation.  Measures of these indices will be vital now, as the condition of these indices at any given point this winter will directly determine what weather we'll see, with no outside influence from El Nino or La Nina.  In short, this probably means that winter 2012/2013 will vary wildly with periods of warmth and sunshine, and periods of harsh cold with snow and ice.  It'll be a roller coaster ride rather than a more persistent brand of weather.  There are not many good analog years to compare this to, so forecasting this winter with any accuracy whatsoever will have to be done on a two week basis at the most.  The interesting thing about a pattern like this is that you can get some very fierce storms, even more so than in a winter where the signal is for all cold and snow.  I have attached a chart showing the forecast during various three month periods throughout this winter.  You can see that "neutral" conditions are the most likely outcome.

Thanksgiving looks fantastic with lots of sunshine and warm temperatures.  Enjoy the upcoming holiday.

Previous discussion follows:

My second semester at college, in early 1998, a severe winter storm struck Kentucky. More than 20 inches of snow fell in many Kentucky counties, aided by a process we call dynamic cooling. To folks in the Lexington area, this storm came to be known as the infamous "dusting" in reference to a forecast made by the late Brian Collins, meteorologist at WKYT-TV, the night before the storm struck. Bowling Green, where I had just moved, saw about 8 inches of snow. That was quite a rarity for the area. I walked almost a mile, uphill, in deep snow, at 7:45 in the morning to get to class ... and no, that's not a joke.

The year my wife and I married, in late 2004, the weather turned fierce and once again a major winter storm struck Kentucky.  Louisville saw almost two feet of snow in many places. Paducah set a new record with 14 inches. After Christmas, the temperature plummeted to well below zero.  Winter came in like a lion and it was brutal.

The winter of 2009-2010 was an exciting one as well. December came in strong with a wind storm that produced snow and wind gusts to 55 miles per hour right here in Lawrenceburg. We had another storm on Christmas day that brought rain and wind gusts above 30 miles per hour. We also saw a freezing fog advisory the week before Christmas, which is unusual around here. January finished up almost 4 degrees below average for the month, with almost 10 inches of snow. February was also wild that winter, with a tornado outbreak on the 11th, as well as almost 5 inches of snow for the month and numerous wind storms, one which produced damaging gusts over 50 miles per hour again in Lawrenceburg.

So what do all these years have in common? The answer:  El Nino. El Nino refers to the general warming of the pacific equatorial waters, and the effects this warmer water has on global weather patterns. We typically see the biggest results of an El Nino event during the winter months, which is why the ENSO (El Nino-Southern Oscillation) cycle is so critical to winter forecasts. Generally, we go into an El Nino phase every 3-7 years. As you can see, El Nino events have brought very wild winter weather to the Ohio Valley in recent history. The one that occurred in 1997-1998 was the strongest one ever recorded. Another consequence of an El Nino year is that tornado outbreaks the following spring are more common, and coming out of the 1997-1998 El Nino Kentucky did indeed have a serious outbreak on the 16th of April. One of those storms caused $512 million in damages to the city of Bowling Green.

As we head toward winter once again, people as always are curious; what does this winter hold in store for us? Well, an interesting piece to the puzzle this year is going to be the return of our good friend El Nino. There are many pieces to the winter forecast puzzle. We look at things such as the Atlantic Oscillation, the North American Oscillation, previous analog years that may give us clues, the current status of drought and ground water reserves in the U.S., etc. There is no doubt, however, that the status of the ENSO cycle is a huge key to what is in store for us. 

The current projections call for El Nino to be weak to moderate as we head into winter. This bodes well for the snow lovers in the area. Another thing to consider is that history is also on our side. The decades of the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s all featured some severe winters. That would put the 2010s in line to follow suit at some point. There is also a Japanese seasonal weather model that accurately predicted the winter weather we saw last year in the eastern U.S. When all other forecasts busted ... this weather model was onto something. For this winter, it's predicting a reversal of what we saw last year. It is predicting cold and snowy conditions to prevail in the eastern part of the nation.

With all the signs looking great for cold and snow, I'm confident in making an early forecast for above average snowfall for Kentucky this winter. I think we'll see snow in each month from November to March, with possible snow storms with heavier amounts in January. I think that temperatures will be slightly below average during the December to February period. And finally, I believe that the risk of ice storms will be slightly above average due to the general storm track being pushed to the southern tier of the nation in response to El Nino conditions. I do not believe that a mild winter is coming up like the one we saw last year. If the forecast works out, the economy will be looking up for companies that make snow shovels and sidewalk salt.

I will try to update the forecast with some visual charts and maps in the coming weeks. Take care and enjoy the beautiful fall colors this year thanks to the frequent rainfall we've gotten recently.