While the big weather story of late has been the Hoth-like cold and snow under which New England is buried, there's a much different scenario unfolding in the west: it's nice! Really nice. Almost too nice. Given that it seems the country's weather is split between Moscow and Boca, has it really been that bad of a winter? Not really.
People who live in places like Denver would tell you that this has been a gorgeous winter, with some snow and extreme cold along the way, but abundant sunshine and abnormally warm temperatures have allowed residents to dig out their short-sleeve shirts. On the other hand, if you were to peer behind any ol' ten-foot snowbank in Boston and ask what residents think of this winter, you might only come out of the experience with a broken nose.
The United States is a huge country—so large, in fact, that you could fit most of western Europe safely within the borders of the lower 48. The Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, and Andorra) alone snugly fits in the Northeast with a little room left over for parts of Ontario and Quebec. It's easy to forget just how much the sheer size of the United States exposes us to a wide range of weather conditions that few other countries in the world experience. One storm system stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico on an average winter's day could cover more than a dozen countries in Europe.
As such, we all have very different ideas and perceptions of weather trends. Is this the winter from hell or a pretty mild season? It depends on whom you ask, and what standards you use.
The country really has seen a huge split in temperatures this year. The western United States has seen above-average temperatures this winter, while the the Northeast and parts of the Deep South are below average, though not as cold as last year. Everyone else is hovering right around normal.
While cold high temperatures and unbearably cold low temperatures are the measures that most people use ("we had three mornings below zero!!!"), the most subjective way to compare temperatures in cities across the country is to look at their departures from average. Here's a look at the average temperatures so far this winter, spanning from December 1 through February 10. The average temperatures were computed by xmACIS2 by averaging the daily temperature ([high temp + low temp] / 2) every day over the period, and then averaging those daily average temperatures together to get the seasonal average temperature. A little confusing, right? Welcome to climatology.
For everyone but Miami and Los Angeles, the winter of 2014-2015 is on track to be warmer than last year. Temperatures have largely one to four degrees above average across much of the western United States—it could wind up being the warmest winter on record for Seattle—as well as some of the eastern cities like Washington and Atlanta that haven't seen the worst of the Arctic plunges.
Of course, these are preliminary numbers up through February 10, and the upcoming blast of sustained cold weather could push cities like Bangor and Boston over the edge and make them colder (on average) than they were last year. Just take a look at the latest forecasts from The Weather Channel, comparing the seven-day forecast for the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk to Boston's.
If you need further convincing that the abnormally cold weather has been confined to just a few parts of the country, take a look at the National Climatic Data Center's (NCDC) analysis of temperatures last month.
Temperatures in the Northeast and parts of the Deep South were below normal, while almost the entire western half of the country was above or much above normal. The average temperature across the entire lower 48 was 2.9°F higher the 20th century's average.
Sure, it may be abnormally cold where you live, but it's only abnormally cold in a relatively small (albeit highly populated) section of the country.
Snow is typically a feast-or-famine situation—one storm could wallop a city with 30 inches of snow, or ten smaller storms spread out over the course of two months could produce three inches of snow each. Each scenario produces the same amount of snow, but the former is much more psychologically challenging than the latter.
The two cities hardest hit by snow this year have been Boston and Buffalo. You may remember the blockbuster lake effect snow event in Buffalo, New York, last November, with some cities south of town receiving seven feet of snow in less than a week. As with most single-band lake effect snowstorms, the event had an extreme gradient—just a few miles separated areas from seven feet of snow and just a couple of inches.
Boston, of course, is experiencing one of its snowiest stretches on record. Each time it snows, the city blows past another record; the most recent significant record to fall in Boston is the snowiest 30-day period, with 73.3 inches of snow recorded at Logan Airport between mid-January and today. The city is nearly three feet above its yearly average of 43.6 inches, reporting 75.1 inches of snow so far since January 1. That's the yearly average, not including the three inches of snow that fell in November and December of 2014.
On the flip side, Denver has only seen 9.1 inches of snow this year, with a seasonal total of 25.1 inches when you factor in snow that fell in November and December. That's far below normal, thanks in large part to warm temperatures and relatively calm conditions. Even Chicago would be sitting below normal if it hadn't gotten caught under the heavy bands of one storm on February 1. That particular storm launched its way into the records by producing 16.2 inches of snow at O'Hare Airport in just 24 hours, becoming the second largest one-day snowfall on the books since the airport opened in 1958. Even Minneapolis has hardly seen any snow this winter, with just 23.6 inches measured since November.
If we use snow to settle the "bad winter" question, it's really going to depend on where the person answering the question lives. Southtowns of Buffalo or Boston? Hell yeah, it's terrible. Just about anywhere else? Not too bad.
Is this really that bad of a winter?
As a whole, no, the country's had it pretty good this year. "Pretty good" is wildly subjective, though—much of the south and west part of the country is mired in a debilitating drought from a lack of rain and mountain snow. If you look approach the question by asking "did I shiver more than normal?" and "was I trapped in my house by a snow bank?", it's shaping up to be a pretty tame winter overall. Again, that changes if you ask someone from Wichita or Worcester. The areas that are hardest hit by extreme weather will always say that the year was terrible, and that's because it was a terrible year relative to their norms.
The media also follows around the extreme weather, so the terribleness that New Englanders are facing this year is amplified for a national and international audience, giving the impression that the winter is worse than it really is. They who hold the microphones control the message. We see this when severe weather strikes the I-95 corridor—Alabama could see severe thunderstorms for an entire week, but if a few bolts of lightning cross the Hudson River, it's breaking news for four hours. Another infamous example is the news using as a backdrop the one house that took the most damage by a weak tornado.
About that cold snap...
I fully understand the irony of my posting this article just days ahead of the coldest plunge of Arctic air we've seen this season. It's going to get pretty darn cold in many locations, with temperatures in the 30s possible as far south as central Florida.
The worst of the cold won't be sustained outside of the Northeast, though, and it won't last long enough to have a dramatic effect on overall seasonal temperatures outside of the deepest regions of the New England Tundra. As densely populated as it is, it's easy to forget that the Northeast only accounts for about 18% of the population of the United States. Most of us won't freeze for more than a few days before conditions moderate back to a more tolerable chill.
Unless you live in a few unlucky spots, this winter hasn't been as bad as it sounds. That doesn't mean that relatively snowless areas of the country won't get slammed with a good storm between now and spring (March snow is well-documented), but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not exactly the headlights of a snowplow.
[Images: AP, Google Maps, author, The Weather Channel, NCDC]