PHILADELPHIA — Above-normal temperatures in January:
Boston: 9 degrees above normal
Burlington, Vt.: 7.4 degrees above normal
New York: 6.5 degrees above normal
Chicago: 6.3 degrees above normal
Philadelphia: 5.9 degrees above normal
In fact, it might be time to issue an “Amber Alert” for winter, Judah Cohen, a scientist with Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Massachusetts, suggested Thursday.
Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast notwithstanding, the winter of 2019-20 indisputably has been a shadow of itself. And the higher-order mammals who forecast the weather say it is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.
“For most of the country, there really has not been much of a winter,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel said. “In fact, we had one of the warmest Januarys in history across the country.”
All winter, models have consistently promised cold shots that did not come to pass.
“I’m not complaining,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the government’s Climate Prediction Center, whose winter forecast did favor above-normal temperatures in much of the nation.
Philadelphia’s official snow total through the end of January, 0.3 inches, was the lowest to date in 25 years, and only three other years were as snow-deprived through Jan. 31 in records dating to 1884. Snow deficits have been common throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, even in the Great Lakes snow belts.
January averaged about 6 degrees above normal around here, and 9 in Boston. In the early going, February evidently is ready to play one-upmanship: The high in Philadelphia could reach 60 Tuesday. Locally, temperatures Tuesday are forecast to be in the low 50s.
“February will start out very warm,” Samuhel said. “The next two weeks look way above normal, then it should trend colder later in the month into March.”
Folklore has it that since Phil did not see his shadow this year, spring is around the corner.
That marks the first time in the 134-year history of the tradition that Phil has predicted an early spring two years in a row, according to state officials. The 22-inch, 20-pound groundhog usually predicts six more weeks of winter (Phil has only predicted an early spring 20 times).
According to AccuWeather, Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast accuracy is approximately 39 percent.
What about polar air?The polar vortex is still very much there, doing what it’s been doing for millennia. It has been a major player, said Cohen, just not in the role it assumed in the winters in which it gained celebrity.
The vortex is a swirling cyclonic mass that allows cold air to build in the Arctic. On occasion some of that air breaks away and oozes deep into the United States riding a buckling jet stream. This winter, however, the vortex has been so strong that in effect it has been a cold-air dam.
Winds circulate counterclockwise around centers of low pressure. Areas to the east get warming, sometimes very warming, winds from the south.
An area of higher pressure, or storm-discouraging heavier air, has persisted over the Southeast this year, repelling snowmaking nor’easters. It has been quite warm down that way, save for the night of the falling iguanas Jan. 22, when temperatures dropped to 40 in Miami.
“In this climate-change environment it’s been proving hard to get sustained cold,” said AER’s Cohen.
“The planet is warming. That’s indisputable,” said Halpert. That’s one reason the climate center’s seasonal outlooks have tended to favor above-average temperatures.
Global temperatures have increased at the rate of about 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1981, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The 2019 global temperature was about 1.7 degrees higher than the 20th-century average, a difference of about 3 percent.
But while the planet has less of it, it still has a generous supply of cold air available.
And while going warmer in a winter forecast generally is a safe bet, if you keep going with it, said Halpert, “some years you’re going to be woefully wrong.”
And with all that cold locked in by the North Pole, says Cohen, it should be a relatively good season for the build-back of Arctic ice.
The abject wimpiness has made a mess out of winter outlooks, but Cohen said his forecast for above-normal snowfall for the Northeast might have positive consequences.
Said Cohen: “You learn more from your failures than your successes.”