Should We Believe Phil’s Hype? The Spring 2015 Weather Outlook

By Vernon Trollinger, February 6, 2015, Energy Efficiency, News

Punxsutawney Phil has done it again. Yanked out of his burrow, the wee beastie was forced to blurt out his prognostic finding by his handlers amid national TV coverage. While Phil (and other groundhogs) is renowned for his skill (watch the 1959 Merrie Melodies classic, Unnatural History, directed by Abe Levitow; go to 4:08), an average person of any common sense would hardly reward rodent-made predictions with any regard for accuracy at all.

Should We Believe Phil's Hype? The Spring 2015 Weather Outlook

This isn’t Punxatawney Phil, but it’s still a groundhog.

Except Phil got it right this time. Well, kind of. It depends entirely upon where you live.

Phil’s Prediction 

The Washington Post put it this way: “Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most beloved and furry seasonal prognosticator, saw his shadow on Monday morning (despite overcast skies), portending six more weeks of winter.”

Now, setting aside the issue of the reliability of “the world’s most beloved and furry seasonal prognosticator,” cloud cover and sunshine can be entirely dependent on local conditions lining up just right on the right day. To put it another way, Phil was probably clutching a rabbit’s foot.

The Prediction of Science 

Let’s look at what systems are at work this winter. First, there’s the predicted El Niño phenomena —which just isn’t happening because it’s still stuck in neutral and leaving lots of warm water in the Northern Pacific. This helps to warm the western US.

Next, there is the Arctic Oscillation (AO). This is a climate pattern characterized by winds circulating counterclockwise around the Arctic at around 55°N latitude. When cold arctic air keeps circulating (the Polar Vortex) around the north pole, the AO is said to be positive. When the Polar Vortex spills southwards, the AO is said to be negative.

For the most part, the AO has been positive, happily staying up around the pole. But back toward the end of December, the Vortex began separating into lobes of cold air, with one spinning over central and eastern Eurasia and the other churning over North America. Since the beginning of January, data suggests a persistent trough has dug in over Baffin Island between Hudson’s Bay and Greenland (see animations).

So, this cold trough over Baffin Island is predicted to continue through February and into March (see NOAA map on left). Thus, according to NOAA’s January 31 prediction update (well in advance of Phil’s findings, I might add), “There are enhanced odds of below-normal temperatures for much of the eastern third of the Conterminous US.

This prediction is also well supported by most weather prediction tools, and is consistent with the idea of a persistent, large-scale trough dominating the mid-tropospheric circulation in the east.” Equal chances (33%) for below, average, or above temperatures remain for the central states and Texas.

As March begins and spring temperatures return, the trough will likely dissipate or move northwards (see NOAA map on right). This will allow equal chances (33%) for below, average, or above temperatures in the eastern states. NOAA models suggest Texas will likely see cooler temperatures for the period. Uncertainty over El Niño starting up diminishes the likelihood that below average temperatures will continue into May and beyond.

Your Electric Bill

Natural gas is the dominant heating fuel in colder parts of the country. It’s also replacing more coal-fire power plants in the Eastern US. Supply stocks still lag a tad behind the five year average; however, warm weather in the west, less cold in the Midwest, and high production in the Marcellus Shale Play are keeping supplies high and prices low. Consumers in New York and New England may see somewhat higher prices on their gas and electric bills, but these are mainly due to pipeline capacity restrictions. The main difficulty for consumers, however, may come from more snow storms causing outages and other problems.

So, Phil’s right…ish about six more weeks of winter — but only in the Eastern United States. If you live there, it’s probably a good idea to just hunker down in your boroughs and, like Phil in his burrow, wait it all out.

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