Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the weekly weather newsletter, which releases every Monday. You can sign up here to receive these every week and during significant storms.
Spring starts Tuesday, but If you Google the word spring, it responds with March 20.
You have NOT gone through a time warp; Tuesday is not March 20. It is March 1. Google isn’t wrong, astronomical spring (based on Earth’s rotation around the sun) is on the vernal or spring equinox.
But in the meteorological world, spring begins March 1.
“Meteorologists and climatologists break the seasons down into groupings of three months based on the annual temperature cycle as well as our calendar,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained.
The groupings make it much easier to calculate seasonal statistics from the monthly statistics.
One thing you may not know is what happens in the winter months can impact what happens in spring to a certain extent.
Will a dry winter lead to a dry spring? Or will a cold and snowy winter lead to a cooler spring?
Whether weather is warm or cold this spring
There is no doubt this winter has been brutal for some. Across the northern tier of the country, an already cold region, temperatures were well below seasonal norms.
As I’m writing this and peaking at the week ahead, things look promising if you want warmer temperatures. But so much plays into the forecast, especially when you’re forecasting three months out.
Jon Gottschalck is chief of the operational prediction branch at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC). He’s one of the experts who will be coming up with the long-range forecast, and to come up with a forecast, you need to look at the past.
He noted one of the things standing out to him from the winter was the relentless rain falling across the mid-Mississippi River Valley, resulting in flooding.
In the West, lots of rain fell early in the season, but shut off when California was supposed to get its peak rainfall, causing the region to end the season well below normal.
Gottschalck acknowledged how wet or dry a region is currently, could have an impact on the next three months.
He explained the soil moisture of a region can play into the temperatures longer term, meaning if an area is very wet, its temperatures could end up a little cooler. By contrast, if an area is exceptionally dry, its temperatures could end up slightly above normal.
“Lots of surface water, whether it be from any flooding, or just higher rivers, or just soil moisture above normal can tend to keep the temperatures below normal or lower than they would normally be,” Gottschalck outlined. “Certain areas that have been quite dry, for example, are going to get a little bit of a bump up, potentially, for above normal temperatures.”
A case in point: California. We were all optimistic early in the season with all the rainfall they received in December, and then, nothing, proving how quickly things can change for the better or the worse.
“We had all that excitement about drought improvement and there was definitely a lot in the West, early on in December,” Gottschalck recounted. “But right now, if you look at the 90-day departures for normal, Northern California and Oregon are considerably below normal the last two months, so that actually trumped.”
Moving forward, California could pick up where it left off, with a continuation of a drier and warmer pattern, as could Texas.
“Texas had one of its hottest Decembers ever,” Gottschalck reported. “Those conditions will play some role in the outlook moving forward, because that feedback can produce warmer temperatures.”
One thing to note is the continuation of the La Niña pattern, a phenomenon where cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific near the equator. It impacts weather all over the globe, including an increase in Atlantic hurricanes.
La Niña influenced this winter, including the early season rain events in the West, colder-than-normal temperatures across the north, and warmer-than-normal conditions in the south.
“The La Niña pattern often produces cold in the Pacific Northwest and along the West Coast, and even into the northern Plains, and that can linger well into March,” Gottschalck pointed out. “If that lingers further into March, it may be a colder start more like La Niña in the early part of the spring.”
Gottschalck added we will start to move away from a La Niña pattern later in the spring.
“As you enter into more neutral conditions, you lose some of your climate reliability, forecasting-wise,” Gottschalck explained.
“We start to focus a little bit on where we have deficits and or surpluses in snow cover and snow water equivalent and soil moisture in the springtime, because those can feed back to the atmospheric temperature,” Gottschalck emphasized.
Places like the Ohio Valley and Tennessee Valley will likely stay on the cooler side, partly because of all the rain they have received.
And as we know, these outlooks are for the season as a whole. There will be ups and downs, wet periods and dry ones all within the season.
But can I just say one more time: Hooray! Spring is right around the corner, no matter when you consider spring to “officially” begin!
New weather satellite will launch into orbit
Ironically, on the first day of meteorological spring, March 1, weather nerds (like myself) will rejoice! NOAA will launch a new weather satellite named GOES-18.
The satellite will sit more than 22,000 miles above Earth and keep tabs on the western United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America and the Pacific Ocean.
It will have a wide array of instruments and will be able to send back ultra-high-definition images which will greatly improve weather forecasts and computer models we rely on for forecasting.
“The observations from these satellites are even more critical now, when the US is experiencing a record number of billion-dollar disasters,” said Pam Sullivan, director of NOAA’s GOES-R program, during a news conference. “Compared to the previous generation, GOES-R satellites deliver 60 times more imagery, and they have a new lightning camera to track severe storms that spawn tornadoes and damaging winds.”
We will be able to watch these storms develop in the Pacific Ocean and track them all the way to the United States.
Like atmospheric river events across the West Coast, which is where the West gets the majority of their annual rainfall. However, they can also result in deadly flooding and landslides. Being able to better predict where these systems will set up will protect life and property like we’ve never seen before.
The first images from GOES-18 won’t be available until next summer, which is a bit of a bummer, since they would really come in handy across the West this week.
Deadly flooding and avalanches possible
An “extreme” Level 4 out of 5 atmospheric river is reaching the Pacific Northwest this week, bringing the risk of flooding and avalanches. Flood watches are in place for more than five million people across Idaho, Oregon and Washington, including Seattle.
The rain will persist for several days. A combination of warmer temperatures will cause heavy rain in the mountains where there is currently snow. It could result in quick melting and water runoff, leading to dangerous flooding and wet avalanches.
“Wet” avalanches typically occur when warm air, sun or rain cause water to drain into the snowpack, in turn decreasing the strength of the snow.
The Northwest Avalanche Center issued a stark warning as the risk of avalanches has increased exponentially.
“Avalanches triggered today could be large enough to bury or kill you. This won’t be the day to try to tiptoe around the hazard.”