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Is Washington In for Another Brutal Winter?

Meteorologist Christopher Strong of the National Weather Service provides some answers and perspective.
Snowfall on a Washington street in mid-March 2014. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

If last winter seemed to be the winter of endless snow, it’s because it was. Well, not technically, but it certainly felt endless. It was the winter of snowfalls that just kept coming until sometime around mid-spring, when we were gifted with one of the loveliest summers in recent memory. That’s the cycle of weather life in the mid-Atlantic: Don’t put all the bets on one pattern or another, because most likely, they will all occur.

It’s a wisdom known well to meteorologist Christopher Strong, who forecasts and tracks area weather from the National Weather Service’s regional headquarters in Sterling, Virginia. He and his colleagues make clear they are not the Farmer’s Almanac, which, by the way, predicts a winter that’s “colder” and “with above-normal snowfall” this year. Strong and the NWS use science and technology, and he’s the first to say the best they can do is forecast two weeks out. Still, there are weather patterns they analyze for general assessments of what to expect in the near future.

We checked in with Strong to get his views on the coming winter and to find out whether it will be another bruiser. We started by turning back the clock.

Describe last winter, please. What happened?

It started off easy, but then right around the first of the year it took a cold, hard turn, and January, February, and March were unsually snowy. Usually January and February are our peak snow months and then it trails off, but last year there was more snow in March than in February. It got progressively worse. One of our worst storms was in March, when typically you are moving into spring.

Was it one of our worst winters?

From a snowfall perspective, it was the worst winter since 2009 and 2010 (famous for “Snowmageddon”). In that winter, there were three major crippling storms. This past winter we had event after event of minor-to-moderate storms. They weren’t as big ’09/’10, but they were unrelenting.

What will the winter of 2014/2015 be like, to the best you can judge?

There’s no strong indication that this upcoming winter will be any particular thing. Sometimes with seasonal forecasting you can see that winter is pushing us toward having a lot of storms, which was the case in 2009/2010. But right now, Mother Nature is not showing her hand early. For people who want to know ahead of time, that’s not the answer they want, but there’s no strong push one way or the other.

But what about the various forecasts of a month or so ago that this would be another brutal winter?

A number of forecasts came out early, when the expectation was that El Niño was really going to fire up and be a major event out of the tropical oceans, which means more storms for the East Coast. As we’ve gone through summer and into fall, that’s now not looking like it’s going to be the case. If anything, we’ll have a minor El Niño event out of the Pacific.

It seems we’ve had no hurricane season. Is that so?

People think it’s a bad hurricane season if they get one, and not if they don’t. There are storms out in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was a less-than-typical season. However, we’re not out of the woods yet. Hurricane season runs to the end of November.

Why did we have such an awesome summer?

It was cooler than normal. After the past several, which were some of the hottest summers ever, it was a nice change. But summers over the past decades indicate more temperatures that are above normal. 

So it was just a lucky break?

The natural variability in nature. 

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