Smile Politely

The most average winter ever

Weather took the social media world by storm in 2013-2014. Polar vortex! Snowmageddon! Chiberia! Generally speaking, the meteorology world does not follow the traditional calendar seasons. Meteorological winter runs through the period beginning on December 1st through February 28th, and for the purposes of this piece we’ll follow that timeline which considers the months of December, January, and February to be winter.

Social media tags aside — let’s take a look at the facts. Regionally speaking, Winter 2013-2014 finished as the 9th coldest winter on record in the state of Illinois. Much of our neighboring Midwest states fell to similar fates, finishing with Top 10 cold winters. Bringing it home a little bit, Champaign-Urbana finished the winter season last year with 39.0” inches of snow, which was good for the 5th snowiest winter on record. That’s over a foot and a half of additional snow compared to a typical winter in Champaign-Urbana. Temperatures told a similar story, finishing as the 4th coldest winter on record with an average temperature of 21.5 degrees, 6.5 degrees below average.

I don’t want to sit here and throw statistics at you, because that’s not what we really remember when we think back to Winter 2013-2014. First and foremost, we remember the skin on our faces burning with every second spent outdoors, the inability to travel anywhere with sideways-falling snow, the hash-tags, and the misuse of meteorological terminology. Oh the misuse and abuse.

No, the polar vortex was not some new horrifying storm conjured up by the evil Winter 2013-2014. The polar vortex has been around in the meteorology world for decades, and will be for the foreseeable future. I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s still there today. Right this very second. Minding its own news-headline free business. In its most basic sense, the polar vortex is an ever-present upper level air current circulating around the polar region. It is not a surface weather feature, and it is not responsible for every push of cold air in the winter. In January 2014 the polar jet stream developed a very large kink, and instead of keeping the cold upper level polar vortex at bay well to our north, a lobe dropped further south and allowed the colder air to drop down into the Great Lakes and Midwest region. In a direct side-effect, a large area of warm air was allowed to build into the western half of North America, and areas in Alaska were basking in all-time warm records, while we trudged through our Arctic tundra. But, this has happened before! And will happen again! This was the case most recently in the 1970s, but the term polar-vortex was not widely recognized, and there was no Twitter for it to take by storm.

But now, sex sells! And it is no less true in the weather world. One meteorologist let that scary phrase escape over the airwaves, and it was all over. Before we knew it, we were under attack by multiple polar vortices, bringing with it #Chiberia, and #snowpacolypse, and #snowmageddon! In the multimedia world, the fear-striking headline gets the mouse clicks and the eyes on your articles and social media pages. And what better way to strike fear into the public than to convince them that the weather is out to get them. Yeah, last winter was pretty awful, but I have a friend who has the polar vortex’s home phone number, and word is he’s got his sights on us again.

We had a brief reprieve from our vacation in the arctic during the spring and summer, but we didn’t make it through the month of September without it being some kind of weird common knowledge around town that Winter 2014-2015 was going to be even worse. Yep, the polar vortex was already targeting us down here in poor old Champaign-Urbana. I’m not sure who started it, but two main sources seemed to be behind this rumor and neither one of which hold any meteorological credibility.

The Farmer’s Almanac told us to get ready for a new term this winter: refriger-nation. The Farmer’s Almanac: a pretty cool stocking stuffer that issues one forecast covering the entire country one year at a time. Who needs to catch the weather forecast on the local news when you’ve got a book that told you the 4th of July forecast back in December of last year? I won’t get into how the Farmer’s Almanac comes up with their forecasts, but it’s no better than taking the fortune in the cookie that came with your take-out as your life forecast for the next year. They told us to prepare for a winter that surpassed the polar vortex hell that we just got rid of. Here we go again, right?

And then there was the satire-website Empire News that published their article titled: Meteorologists Predict Record-Shattering Snowfall Coming Soon: Milk and Bread Prices to Soar. I’d bet that this article was a play on the hype that the Farmer’s Almanac had released earlier in the year. In this case, it wasn’t so much the article as it was an image that they posted along with it. A map of the US colorfully portrayed above-normal snowfall across almost the entire country. The article itself suggested you could take the snowfall you received last winter and multiple it by 5, 10, or 20 times this winter. And people loved it! Oh, how they loved it! So happily did they share this link with their friends and family on Facebook, and make water-cooler small talk with their coworkers about the scary winter that loomed ahead of us all.

We’re now halfway through “the worst winter ever”, so where do we stand? Well, here in Champaign-Urbana we set an all-time record for the least amount of snow in the month of December. A trace! That’s all. And through January 20th we’ve seen over 70% less total snow this winter than we did December 1st through January 20 of last year. What about the cold? It’s been pretty cold right? So cold that December 2014 finished with an average temperature about 4 degrees above average in Champaign-Urbana. So, we’ve seen 70% less snow than last year, and have been warmer than average. Not bad for the worst winter ever, right? What does the rest of the winter look like? Pretty darned average, in my opinion. Through the end of January there are no major pattern changes coming. A couple doses of snow perhaps, but no airplane tickets to Champaign-Urbana being purchased by the polar vortex for now. Perhaps February will prove me wrong.

Andrew Pritchard publishes information about local weather at Chambana Weather.

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