Storm Team 8: 2016-2017 winter weather outlook

The snow in Rockford n Feb. 24, 2016.
The snow in Rockford n Feb. 24, 2016.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Get ready, West Michigan: Winter is around the corner and looks to be leaning on the colder and snowier side of usual.

West Michigan has experienced a very mild and sunny November, but a pattern flip is expected to usher in much more winter-like weather, and unlike last year, it is expected to last through December.

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1. ANALOG YEARS SAY SO

One of the best ways to determine what an upcoming winter will be like is to look at past seasons with similar weather patterns. Years that match the coming one are called ‘analog years.’ All the analog years that match this coming one were cold and snowy for December, and had a winter that lingered. That is one reason our team believes this coming winter will also have a cold December and last all the way until spring.

“The year we have most identical to what we have going on right now I found to be 1983-1984. And in that year, we had a bunch of sunny, warm days in November, especially early November. But boy, you hit a wall and things change and that December ended up being 8 degrees colder than average,” Storm Team 8 Chief Meteorologist Bill Steffen said.

2. SIBERIAN SNOW IS STACKING UP

Recent studies have shown a pretty strong relationship between Siberian snowpack and how cold our winters in West Michigan get. Typically, when snow builds up sooner or faster than usual in Siberia and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, we see colder than average winters locally.

Right now, the Northern Hemisphere is seeing more than 5 million km more snow cover than usual for this time of year.

snow-anomoly

“When you have all this cold and snow, that builds up over Siberia, what happens is there is no way to warm that air up. That air just gets colder and colder and builds up and that air mass just gets bigger and bigger until the pattern changes and it comes over the poles and right down. We get what’s called a Siberian express,” Bill Steffen explained.

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3. LAKE MICHIGAN WARMTH

Lake Michigan is much warmer than average right now. Locals know this means a perfect setup for lake-effect snow. Warm lake water can act to destabilize cold air swinging over the lake, packing that air full of moisture and unloading it as snow.

Our warm lake this year could boost our snow totals for lake areas early in the season.

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4. SO LONG EL NINO, HELLO LA NINA

Last December was warm because we had a very strong El Nino.

This year, the pattern has flipped. Instead of an El Nino, which gave us a warm December and snow lingering into the late spring, we have a La Nina. This pattern typically helps steer the jet stream in a way that gives West Michigan colder than usual winters. However, this is only a weak La Nina year, so it won’t have as strong of an impact on our winter as the El Nino did last year.

5. OTHER TELECONNECTIONS OR PATTERNS

Patterns that are linked across the earth can change the storm track over the Great Lakes. For example, the Arctic Oscillation is going negative for Nov. 19 and 20 and that is when we are expecting a shift to much more winter-like weather.

There are about six key teleconnection patterns meteorologists can look at when discerning a seasonal forecast. Some will have a minimal impact while others could be partially responsible for big cold bursts.

Ocean temperatures are very important too, especially where the oceans are warmer or colder than usual. Warm pools in Pacific may force our storm track into a cold pattern closer to home.

winter-outlook-what's-normal
No two winters are ever exactly the same in West Michigan. Still, the data and records allow us to figure out “average” numbers to show us what we usually see each year.

It is very difficult to find snow records for the state. This is because snow must be measured by hand. Most locations don’t have a person dedicated to measuring snow religiously, so the numbers are left off the official books.

Still, here are some good estimates as to how much snow we usually see. Please keep in mind that these are estimates.

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Estimates of how much snow areas see on average each winter

 

  • Grand Rapids usually sees about 74.9 inches of snow each season. The most Grand Rapids has seen was 116 inches in 2013-2014. The least is 47.6 inches in 1986-1987.
  • Muskegon usually sees about 90.6 inches of snow each season. The highest amount was 148.2 inches back in 2008-2009. The least was 51.2 inches back in 2001-2002.
  • Battle Creek usually sees 57.8 inches of snow. The most it saw was 97.5 inches in 2006-2007. The least was 31.2 inches in 1990-1991.
  • Big Rapids usually sees 62.4 inches of snow. The most was 101.6 inches in 2013-2014. The least was 37.6 inches in 1994-1995.
  • Ionia usually sees 52.8 inches of snow. The most it saw was 74.2 inches in 2007-2008. The least was 31.4 inches in 2011-2012.
  • Lansing usually sees 50.9 inches of snow. The most was 73.7 in 2004-2005. The least was 30.2 inches in 2012-2013.
  • Jackson usually sees 37.6  inches of snow. The most was 67.2″ in 1996-1997. The least was 17.7 inches in 1986-1987.


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TOP 10 SNOWIEST WINTERS

Interestingly enough, the winter of 2013 to 2014 is considered the most “severe” in West Michigan history based on work from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center. Steve Hilberg, the climatologist and director emeritus for that center, has ranked the winters based on more than just the coldest days and the final snow totals.

“At the very least, the severity of a winter is related to the intensity and persistence of cold weather, the frequency and amount of snow, and the amount and persistence of snow on the ground,” the MRCC’s website reads.

The winter of 2013-2014 came in with the largest “severe” score. However the winter of 1978-1979 was the only year to make it into both “Top 10” lists for coldest and snowiest winters for Grand Rapids.

2013 snow pile
A pile of snow sits next to a stop sign in West Michigan. (Feb. 27, 2013)
  • 1978-1979: 90.7 inches
  • 2000-2001: 98.1 inches
  • 1996-1997: 98.4 inches
  • 1970-1971: 101 inches
  • 1964-1965: 101.4 inches
  • 1958-1959: 104.7 inches
  • 2001-2002: 105.2 inches
  • 2007-2008: 107 inches
  • 2013-2014: 116 inches
  • 1951-1952: 132 inches

TOP 10 COLDEST WINTERS

Thermometer cold KARE

  • 1978-1979: 19.4 degree average
  • 1977-1978: 19.3 degree average
  • 1911-1912: 19.2 degree average
  • 1935-1936: 18.5 degree average
  • 1904-1905: 18.3 degree average
  • 1976-1977 (tie): 18.2 degree average
  • 1962-1963 (tie): 18.2 degree average
  • 1919-1920: 18 degree average
  • 1917-1918: 17.3 degree average
  • 1903-1904: 15.8 degree average

>>App users can click here to watch a replay of Storm Team 8’s Q&A session on Facebook Live

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The only winter to go down in the record books as one of the top 10 coldest and snowiest in West Michigan was also the one that made Chief Meteorologist Bill Steffen a household name.

Bill Steffen and his wife Gayle in 1978.
Bill Steffen and his wife Gayle in 1978.

Bill was on the air for three straight days during the blizzard of 1978.  His coverage was one of the only information avenues people could rely on.

“Well, the blizzard of ’78 not only was the biggest snow storm that I think I’ve ever been in, but it was also a storm that kind of made my career. There were no cellphones, there were no computers, so everybody was home watching TV and I was the only meteorologist on the air for a long time,” Bill said.

A photo of a blizzard warning Bill Steffen wrote on Jan. 26, 2078.
A photo of a blizzard warning Bill Steffen wrote on Jan. 26, 2078.

“We had 15 inches of snow in 15 hours. And it was not just the snow, which would have been enough, but we also had winds which were gusting over 40 mph. Now that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing was it knocked the snow off the roofs so we didn’t have any roofs caving in, but it blew the snow into drifts as high as 14 feet. I actually stood on a drift of snow that was 14 feet high,” he continued.

West Michigan felt the blizzard’s impact for months. Bill says our area experienced the coldest February ever and the fifth coldest March, so snow from the blizzard didn’t melt until mid-April.

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