Hey, What Happened to Winter? What Its Wimpiness Portends for Spring

PHOTO: The Stidman family, Fil, Anna, and their daughters Laura, back left, and Sarah, of Raleigh, N.C. enjoy the warm Washington weather underneath a blooming magnolia tree on the Capitol grounds, March 12, 2012.

The winter of 2011-12 might well earn the title of "the winter that wasn't" in many parts of the United States.

The season has entered the books as the fourth warmest on record for the Lower 48, according to an analysis by the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

In January, for instance, daily high-temperature records were broken across the northern Plains. Minot, N.D., posted a 61 degree F. high on Jan. 5, eclipsing the previous record of 58 degrees set in 1906.

IN PICTURES: Extreme weather 2012

Despite several powerful snowstorms that crossed the continent during the season, the extent of the country blanketed with snow was the third smallest since satellites began keeping track 46 years ago. The amount of rain was also below normal.

What a contrast with the winter before. Who could forget the seemingly endless conga line of storms that traversed the country? That winter also was somewhat colder than normal, which meant the snow didn't melt significantly between storms, explains Jeff Weber, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

"This year was dramatically different," he says.

Yet both winters began the same way – with La Niña reigning in the tropical Pacific. La Niña is the cooler half of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. El Niño brings warmer-than-normal waters to the equatorial eastern Pacific, where it piles up against the coasts of Central and South America. La Niña brings colder-than-normal waters to the same region. Both alter atmospheric-circulation patterns in ways that are felt far beyond the tropics.

Typically, La Niña pushes the eastward-flowing jet stream – which serves as a kind of superhighway for storms – farther north than usual. That pattern appeared last year in a relatively stark boundary between a very wet northern half of the country and a parched southern tier, stretching from Arizona to northern Florida and up into the Carolinas.

This year, even with a somewhat weaker La Niña, the average path of the jet stream has moved farther north still, leaving the northern US drier than normal. Without extensive snow cover to help keep a lid on winter temperatures, the stage was set for a warmer-than-normal winter, weather and climate specialists say.

The back-to-back La Niñas have a marked effect on rivers in the Southwest and Southeast, notes Klaus Wolter, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado.

"We've had 10 cases in the last century of double-dip La Niña events," he says. If the initial event is strong – last year was one of the Top 3 La Niñas in the past 50 years – the second, weaker one tends to bring drier conditions to the Southwest and southern tier. The difference shows up strikingly in river flows, he says. They tend to be even lower coming out of the second event than they were at the end of the first event.

"That's what we're looking at now for the Colorado River, and it's also what we're looking at for parts of the Southeast – Florida, Georgia, places like that," Dr. Wolter says.

One glaring exception this winter was Texas, where several storms helped moderate the state's severe drought.

Elsewhere, the reduced blanket of snow is likely to give areas ravaged by last year's floods along the Mississippi River a much-needed break. A year ago, runoff from heavy snows, combined with intense spring storms, brought record floods in many parts of the Midwest.

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