What’s With the Weather?
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Over the past month, much of New England settled under a balmy December heatwave only to be blanketed in snow and ice.This pattern repeated throughout the start of the new year. But what has caused these crazy temperature extremes?
Starting December 13, several states roasted under record highs. This long stretch of springtime-like warmth, only in December, was described as “freakish” and seemed truly unnatural. With over 1,000 December temperature records were broken across 20 states, people went Christmas shopping in T-shirts. Here in NJ, Newark experienced days of consecutive 60-degree and above weather, the fourteenth instance of December warmth since 1931. Temperatures peaked at 64 degrees on December 13th and 14th, breaking previous record highs of 63 in 1946 and 63 in 2001, respectively. On December 14th, “only 3% of the Northeast was snow-covered, compared with 81% on this date last year, according to the National Weather Service.” This was certainly known, as New England residents expressed their confusion and disappointment at a snowless Christmas.
While snowy states like Vermont has low attendance as their ski resorts because of the warm weather, perhaps what was even stranger was in the West, where exact opposite situation happened.Frigid gales swept over those states, covering “ski areas in California, Oregon and Nevada in Idaho” with nearly two feet of snow. Even non-ski areas were affected. The normally sweltering Phoenix, AZ shivered under low-20s temperatures, and even had some snowfall, calling for a statewide “freeze watch”. The normal range for these areas around was the mid-60s, the temperature New England was meanwhile sweating under.
Many people have asked how these weather extremes were provoked. Rather surprisingly, global warming was not the primary cause for the alternately toasty temperatures and frigid forecasts. Rather, it was El Niño, the “warm” half of the ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) cycle. Along with La Niña, the ENSO is a weather phenomenon that creates temperature fluctuations in the Pacific Ocean. This time around, El Niño’s location pushed a cold jet stream far to the north, which allowed warm weather to blanket much of New England.
Meanwhile, there was no freakish “global cooling” responsible for the West. “A strong low-pressure trough pushed a cold front through the area”, and that front brought the rain and snow that was experienced in northern Arizona. Additionally, the air behind the front was dry, so Phoenix became extraordinarily cold. Both of these passed, just in time for the giant blizzard that covered New England during the weekend of January 22nd and left Watchung Hills unfit for attendance until the 27th. It was blizzard so bad, in fact, that it was recorded as the 4th worst winter storm in the past century. ranking a Category 4 from 1 (notable) to 5 (extreme) on the NOAA’s Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS).
How did others in our East Coast area fare? Some areas ranged from a few inches to as much as 3 feet. In New York, residents were startled by the streets that got buried in snow on January 25th, as New York City had been balmy and Rockefeller Center filled with ice-skaters in T-shirts a month prior on Christmas Day. The Big Apple issued a travel ban and 52 deaths were reported from hypothermia, auto accidents or exhaustion from shoveling. Even more weather records were broken with the storm, as Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York City reached a high of two feet, with Philadelphia just under 2 feet. In North Wildwood, NJ, floodwaters hit a record height of 9.26 feet, six inches higher than Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In the aftermath, schools everywhere were shut down and roads remained icy, including Watchung Hills.
With an unusually severe heatwave and major blizzard out of the way, this winter is definitely shaping up to be a memorable one. How much more snow is ahead?