Spring 2014 Weather Forecast: Is Punxatawney Phil a Liar?

By Vernon Trollinger, February 21, 2014, News

m.01.tThis past Groundhog’s Day, Punxsutawney Phil predicted 6 more weeks of winter. Now, that prediction certainly applies to New York and Pennsylvania residents left out in the cold as they slog through the same old snowy dreck they’ve been fighting for two months. But meanwhile, folks in Houston are languidly enjoying spring-like temps in the mid-70s. Is Punxsutawney’s presaging rodent neglecting to account for changing weather patterns? Did last year’s mistake and threatened legal action against him frost his self-confidence?

Not surprisingly, the real story isn’t at the bottom of a damp rodent burrough on Gobbler’s Knob. It’s way up north, in a whirling blob of atmosphere called the polar vortex.

Negative Oscillations

Ideally, atmospheric pressure and temperature would keep the polar vortex’s cold air in northern latitudes, while the warmer air circulated in the south in a seasonally rhythmic way. The polar vortex is bound by the dictates of the polar jet stream. Rather than stay in a regular shape, atmospheric pressure and temperature along with polar jet stream’s location, speed, and strength make the cold air wobble about or oscillate —hence the name — the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The NAO is seen by how the polar jet stream moves northward or southward and changes temperatures.

Sometimes during the year, the atmospheric pressures at middle latitudes tend to be higher and warmer as air moves further north (called a positive phase). Other times, the polar vortex has a higher pressure and the cold air dips southward (called a negative phase). Oddly enough, the freakishly frigid temps from early January didn’t feature high pressure over the Arctic and models for the rest of that month gave neutral results. Something else has been letting chilly polar air meander southwards this winter. But what?

Meandering Through Extremes?

Bear in mind, just like your car’s engine has lots of moving parts that work together, so does this planet’s atmosphere. One of the key factors still absent this past year has been that the thermal system that generates El Nino/La Nina continues to be stalled in neutral. In spite of predictions last spring for an active hurricane season, there were very few storms possibly because there was too much heat.

Back in September, I mentioned a NOAA study, The Recent Shift in Early Summer Arctic Atmospheric Circulation . The study made particular mention of blocking patterns by stating, “Enhanced warming of the Arctic affects the jet stream by slowing its west-to-east winds and by promoting larger north-south meanders in the flow.”

One of that study’s authors, Dr. Jennifer Francis, recently spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, saying the Polar Jet’s diminished strength lets it meander around troughs and ridges that it would normally blow away. Eerily enough, it’s similar to the blocking troughs and ridges we experienced this winter, last summer, and last winter that produced lingering weather extremes.

The Next Three Months

NOAA says the near-term trend includes chilly temperatures in the upper Midwest and Northeast due in part to a ridge stuck off the Aleutians and a persistent trough along the eastern seaboard. So, cold snaps remain a possibility. Temperatures are expected to be above average in the West, average in Texas and the Southeast, and somewhat below average in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast by the first week of March.

NOAA’s prediction for February-March-April (FMA) temperature probability will be above average for most of the southern US. For Texas, that probability is between 30 and 40%. New York and Pennsylvania will have equal chances for above or below normal temperatures. (See map at top.) The precipitation forecast, however, looks bleaker as spring begins in the South, including the elevated chances (30%+) for below average precipitation in already drought-stricken West Texas, Southwest, and California as well as reaching further eastward into central Florida.

To sum up the weather forecast for Spring 2014, keep these two things in mind:

1: Groundhogs should reevaluate the criterion for their climatological models.

2: We know that extreme weather moves energy prices higher. If weather extremes become more likely, energy consumers from Texas to Pennsylvania and New York can save themselves money by monitoring their heating and cooling costs. With energy prices about to settle into their annual early spring trough, now is a smart time to start shopping for low, fixed-rate retail electricity plans for your home or business. Fixed-rate electricity plans are a smart long-term investment that can insulate your wallet from seasonally volatile energy costs by keeping your electricity bill low and predictable.

Probability of Exceedence (POE) temperature map image “m.01.t.gif” for Feb-Mar-Apr 2014 is courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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