Tom Skilling’s long-range winter forecast for Chicago area

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Even die hard Chicagoans look back at last winter and shiver with its 82 inches of snow and relentless cold. It turned out to be the third coldest and snowiest Chicago winter on record.  And, our early blast of arctic cold and snow has many asking, is it happening again? What does Skilling say?

The Climate Prediction Center has issued its new winter outlook which covers December through February. So, we headed to the Chicago office of the National Weather Service to talk to the meteorologist who invented the most used word for last year’s brutal winter in Chicago: Chiberia.

"It took off that first day,” says Ricky Castro. “We sent out a tweet about preparing people for the wind chills, how extreme and dangerous they would be. Then it became the word of the winter for Chicago.”

Castro handles social media duties for the Chicago office, and is part of the local climate research team. They’ve been looking at global factors that may impact not just this week, but the entire winter in the Chicago area. One of the things they’re looking at is an El Nino, which means warmer than average ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

“This pool of warmer water here, that’s what we look for,” Castro says.

Castro says not all El Ninos are created equally. A strong El Nino can result in a warmer and less snowy winter for the Chicago area.

"But the weaker events, which is what we’re kinda looking at, tend to be at least the chance for colder conditions,” he says.

They’re also looking at early and extensive snow cover around the hemisphere: "Since the late 70s this was the second highest amount of snow and second highest advance of snow cover.”

And, when you’re looking at what kind of winter is going to come up, how much snow is on the ground is a big deal. Where you see orange on this map, there’s snow on the ground according to this analysis from Rutgers University.

Here’s the official winter forecast from Castro and his colleagues at the National Weather Service: Equal chances of above or below normal temperatures here in Chicago, but, a large area below normal south of us. The warm weather will be out west and up north toward Alaska.

The big snows in Buffalo, NY and downwind of the Great Lakes have raised some red flags in recent weeks in their persistence. And of course we’ve been shivering for an extended period in Chicago as well.

There are a couple other factors that we’re watching very carefully. One of those factors is all this warm air up in the arctic. It’s something we’ve been seeing more and more in recent decades during the winters. When this warmth collects up north, and you see it in the red and brown areas on the map, while the lower 48 is immersed in cold air, the jet stream tends to buckle way north to get around all that warm air and then plunges into the U.S. And patterns like that tend to set up extremes of cold and snow. If the jet stream were to buckle repeatedly this winter, and that’s a possibility, then we could have a colder winter on the way than is currently being predicted.

Here’s a model from Princeton University, from NASA and from the Japanese Meteorological organizations and they’re all saying a cold winter is on the way.

When you’re trying to forecast a season ahead, there’s no definitive tool that’s always going to give you the right answer. We often look at history. My weather producer Bill Snyder went back in the record books to see what happened in previous Chicago winters that started out as cold as this one.

“This cold spell that we’re in the middle of is unprecedented," he says.

Bill found that only six other winters logged a cold spell of this intensity, or one that was this persistent so early in the season.

“In those 6 years, five of the six wound up milder than normal. And the one year that wasn’t warmer than normal was just a hair below normal so that’s a pretty good percentage there. The other interesting fact was of those six winters, 4 of the 6 were less snowy. And one of those four believe it or not is our least snowiest winter on record which was back in 1920-21 where only 9.8 inches fell,” he says.

We can sure hope that’s the case. But, there is solid evidence that some of the same factors that drove last winter’s chill are still in place. This may yet be a winter to be reckoned with.

“You can’t rule anything out really,” Castro says. “Like, we had 3 consecutive really, really harsh winters back in the late 70s, so we’re hoping that’s not the case.”

Whatever happens this winter, Castro is already working on what he hopes will become this year’s viral word: “Windchillinois. For our next when we have a wind chill warning.”

One more thought on seasonal outlooks. It’s important to people and business to get a heads up. So, while long range forecasts still have many flaws, there is value in them. And as the science improves, so will their accuracy.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Steve Scheuer and Mike D’Angelo contributed to this report.

 

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