Joke tellers love it, while most locals roll their eyes.
However, the saying may hold a grain of truth. Let’s at least momentarily assume that hot air is cast away from the city in a shutdown, causing a ripple effect that ultimately impacts winter.
Example? The last time the federal government shut down in 1995-96, 46 inches of snow paralyzed D.C.! It was one of the snowiest winters on record.
I examined if a shutdown foretells the type of winter that follows in Washington (with recency bias fully entrenched in this snow lovers mind). Snow lovers: it’s good news.
To keep this simple, the sample is limited to those closures since the modern congressional budgeting process took effect in 1976. When more than one shutdown (1977, 1982, 1984, 1995) occurred in a year, the multiples are considered as one to not double count.
The majority of these shutdowns happened near the start of the government’s fiscal year. Some — like the 1996 version — dragged into January. In all cases, the winter referred to here is the one immediately following, or concurrent with, the shutdown.
Of the 12 winters encompassing the 17 government shutdowns, eight of them had more snow than average in D.C. (15.4 inches at Reagan National Airport) – most of them by a significant margin. Snow weenies rejoice!
1995-96 is the best example of a furlough-induced whiteout, given its winter snowfall total of 46 inches, ranking third most on record. That was a “real winter”, with the monument-closing January 5-7 Blizzard. It was cold too, with temperatures averaging three degrees below normal.
The winter of 1978-79 was nothing to sneeze at either. Coming off one of the lengthiest shutdowns of 18 days during the preceding fall (1978), we got a defense bill without a nuclear aircraft carrier. And a lot of snow, including the First President’s Day Snowstorm, one of D.C.’s top 10 biggest.
Wait, there’s more.
Following the 1982 shutdown, the The Megalopolitan Blizzard hit in February, dropping 15-20 inches or more across the area.
1981-82 featured plentiful snow, and one of the top-5 surprise snowstorms for D.C.
Not to be outdone, the region was dealt back-to-back big storms in January 1987.
Heck, even the least snowy shutdown winter gave us 8.1 inches of white gold in 1990-91. That’s three inches more than we’ve seen the last two winters combined!
When it comes to cold weather, shutdown winters have a similarly strong signal. Of the 12 years with shutdowns since 1976, only three winters were warmer than the current average. That same unsnowy (when we used to get snow) winter of 90-91 ran the warmest of the bunch, at close to 4 degrees above normal.
Given Washington, D.C. has generally warmed over the course of recorded history, the coldest temperatures — like an average of 25 degrees in January of 1977 — seem unlikely in the winter ahead. Let’s call it the lower bound of the coming post-shutdown cold season.
Using the shutdown method of winter forecasting, the average works out to 22.5 inches of snow for winter in Washington. The (Dec-Feb) average temperature of 37 degrees is also over a degree below normal. Additionally, there appears to be a better than usual shot at either seeing a crippling snowstorm or at least a few that bring proper sledding conditions.
Overall conclusion? Shutdown winters bring significantly greater odds of cold and snow than normal for D.C.
Before getting your hopes up too much, consider the pattern in our snowiest shutdown year was pretty extreme and not one we expect to repeat this year. Rick Grow noted as much on Twitter in response to my “analog” of the snowy 95-96 winter.
— Rick Grow (@GrowWeather) October 1, 2013
Reposted below, via the link provided by Rick, the foreshadowing of that 1995-96 winter was unique, with signals of both consistent cold and a snowy pattern (favorable high-latitude blocking) evident quite early - even in the days around the first shutdown period that started in November:
In closing, no meteorological reasoning behind a seasonal outlook was used here. Our real winter forecast is still a few weeks away. Look for it on CWG in November.