The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 24, 2012

Meteorologist: October surprise not a harbinger of nasty winter

BECKLEY — Just because an October surprise left West Virginia buried under tons of heavy, wet snow is no reason to consider the blizzard an omen of bad things to come in the winter months.

In fact, the folks assigned to watching the nation’s ever-changing weather cannot say for sure just what quirky turns nature might take after the season arrives in late December.

“That was a unique set of circumstances,” says Dave Marsalek, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston, in reflection on the snow that followed Hurricane Sandy’s unwelcome intrusion along the East Coast.

A late-season tropical storm erupted within the bounds of the hurricane season and collided with a cold front that pumped frigid air in the Northwest.

“A combination of the two led to some significant occurrences, and not just over the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and even Tennessee and North Carolina, but what happened on the East Coast as well, with the unique direction that storm took,” Marsalek explained.

The bottom line, the storm that piled several feet of thick snow over southern counties is no reason to interpret it as a portent of some ugly days ahead.

“I don’t think you can draw any conclusions from that,” Marsalek said.

“Remember March and April? March was pretty much warmer than April was, and that was also interesting, anomalous and significant. But I couldn’t tell you back then what it was going to mean for our summer. Did it have an effect on our summer? I don’t think so.”

There are some general things to observe, based on climate maps maintained on the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Regions of the nation are shaded various hues accompanied by numbers that give one a percentage of likely temperatures and precipitation in a three-month outlook, Marsalek explained.

But again, no hard conclusions can be drawn.

“Essentially, over West Virginia, here in this three-month period, you’re looking at a 33-1/3 chance of a normal winter, a 33-1/3 chance of above normal and 33-1/3 chance of below normal,” the meteorologist said.

Ditto for the anticipated precipitation in the winter months.

“There’s no strong signal, either way,” Marsalek said.

In making such generalized forecasts, he said the folks sketching the NOAA maps consider a number of data in a complicated method, such as El Niño.

“These are patterns around the globe that can have, even though scattered, and not necessarily close to our area, the chain-reaction type effects that can make a difference in what our general weather patterns are going to be like over a period,” Marsalek said.

Various studies, complemented by experience, are plowed into the mix in an effort to see just what effect such patterns impose on the region’s weather.

“Is it 100 percent accurate?” he asked.

“Of course not. But they can give hints into the long-term trends.”

Some put faith into The Old Farmers Almanac, which bases its projections on long-running historical patterns.

So, for the Ohio Valley, in which West Virginia lies, the Almanac foresees a winter that is colder and drier than normal, with above-normal snowfalls.

Colder times are to come from late December through early January, and in early and mid-February. Snowiest periods are to fall in mid-to-late November, mid-to-late December and early to mid-January.

Looking ahead to spring, the Almanac predicts April and May to be warmer and rainier than usual. And summer is expected to be warmer and wetter than normal.

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