National Weather Service predicts average winter for our area
FARGO - This year's winter likely will fall within the unusually harsh winter of 2010-11 and the freakishly mild winter of 2011-12.
Or, put another way, the official early prediction calls for a winter that's pretty normal - with a hedge that it could be a bit drier and milder based on climate signals.
"We're predicting a near normal winter," Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service said Wednesday.
Average winter snowfall is 49.6 inches in Fargo and 45.6 inches in Grand Forks. More broadly, the normal snowfall band for the southern valley is 50 to 60 inches, and 40 to 50 inches for the northern valley.
Two years ago, winter brought twice the normal snowfall, while last winter delivered about half the normal amount.
"Normal still means we're going to have some god-awful cold days and some horrendous snowstorms," Gust said.
Or, he quipped, it means, "I'm only shoveling 5 feet of normal instead of 10."
Still, given the long run of drier and warmer conditions, forecasters allow that the coming winter could be a bit milder and warmer than average, Gust added.
Forecasters say predicting the upcoming winter is made more difficult by the lack of clarity in the signal that alternates between an El Niño and a La Niña.
The El Niño signal in the Pacific Ocean - which favors a mild winter for the area - has faded and now is neutral.
This means the severity of winter will largely be determined by another pattern called the Arctic Oscillation, which strongly influences Red River Valley winters.
But the Arctic Oscillation fluctuates, meaning its influence shifts, and making its net effect difficult to predict.
Given that uncertainty, Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota's state climatologist, leans in the direction of a continuation of the warmer and drier weather that dominated in preceding months.
"That pattern very well could continue," he said. "My hunch is more towards a drier than normal winter."
As for the drought, moderate to severe drought conditions have seen some relief, Gust said, with improved topsoil moisture. Still, he and Akyuz note that subsoil moisture has not been replenished.
Both forecasters are quick to acknowledge that weather often confounds those who try to predict what it will do.
Last year, for example, the weather service prediction proved inaccurate.
"We thought it was going to be cold and snow," Gust said, "and guess what - it wasn't."