Grading our 2013-14 winter outlook: it’s ugly

Gulls at the Tidal Basin. The mounds of snow in the foreground blanket paddle boats which soon will be filled with tourists.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Gulls at the Tidal Basin. The mounds of snow in the foreground blanket paddle boats which soon will be filled with tourists. (Kevin Ambrose)

It’s that time again. We grade our winter and summer seasonal outlooks in spring and fall, respectively. In short, our winter outlook for the 2013-14 season was a bust.

Outside of the warm December, we mostly missed the boat. We predicted that it would be quite warm with below normal snow, and it was a somewhat cold and very snowy winter. Let’s examine what we got right (not much) and what we got wrong (a lot).

Link: Winter outlook 2013-14 for Washington, D.C.: Volatile, leaning warm, with below normal snow

We actually did get a couple things right.

The outlook did very well in December. The prediction was that it would be 3 degrees above normal, and it was 2.6 degrees above normal. We also suggested that it would be a volatile winter with cold shots that were brief, but quite cold. It was in fact a volatile winter with many swings, and the cold shots were indeed quite cold, but they weren’t always brief and they outperformed the warm shots.

Now onto what we got wrong.

January and February were cold. Around 4 degrees below normal and 1 degree below normal in the District (as observed at Reagan National Airport), respectively. Outside the District, both months were even colder than that. The urban heat island effect around downtown D.C. and the surrounding river basin lowlands was a much bigger factor than usual. During the significant cold shots, temperatures remained quite elevated overnight compared to the surrounding metro area.

Overall, a winter that we predicted to be 3 degrees warmer than normal was generally 1 to 2 degrees below normal across D.C. metro. Yes, it “felt” colder, but we actually had a significant number of warm shots, even if brief. The cold was more impressive in terms of intensity than in terms of persistence and duration. Nonetheless, we missed the mark.

Surface temperature anomalies during meteorological winter. March was even colder compared to average. (Weatherbell.com)

Surface temperature anomalies during meteorological winter. March was even colder compared to average. (Weatherbell.com)

Our snow forecast was a complete failure. While we didn’t call for the “snowless” kind of winter we saw in 2011-12, we did call for seasonal snowfall to be somewhat below normal, and it was 200-250% above normal region wide.

What went wrong? Hard to say for sure. Perhaps the biggest mistake was thinking that this past winter with its neutral El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) state would inherit or take on the characteristics of the previous few winters. That didn’t happen. This winter was its own unique animal. In the future during neutral or weak ENSO states, we need to do a better job not overestimating the power of persistence.

Overlooked was the amazing resilience of the Western U.S./Alaska ridge, and East Coast trough through much of the winter. The resulted dip in the jet stream over the East Coast brought a barrage of storms  - most weak but a few strong – and very cold air flooding into the region with regularity. Many, including us, did not foresee this pattern being so dominant, especially in the absence of much North Atlantic blocking (high pressure over Greenland which can cause the jet stream to dip over the eastern U.S.).

Looking ahead to future winter forecasts, it appears we won’t need to take on the particular challenge of ENSO state anytime soon. It is looking pretty likely that we will have an El Niño event this upcoming winter. El Niño presents its own unique challenges, but generally lends itself to slightly higher confidence seasonal outlooks.

Overall, the grade for our winter outlook is either a D or an F. We’ll let you decide. We look forward to redeeming ourselves in November.

Related:

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2013-2014 winter outlook
2012-2013 winter outlook
2012-2013 winter outlook recap
2011-2012 winter outlook
2011-2012 winter outlook recap
2010-2011 winter outlook
2010-2011 winter outlook live chat
2010-2011 winter outlook recap
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2009-2010 winter outlook recap
2008-2009 winter outlook
2008-2009 outlook live chat
2008-2009 winter outlook recap
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2007-2008 winter outlook recap
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