Should you believe winter forecasts issued in August? Probably not.


March 17, 2014 (Kevin Ambrose)

In recent weeks, several forecasting outlets have issued winter outlooks. If you’d like a warm winter, you can find a winter outlook predicting that. If you prefer a cold, snowy winter, some weather firms are predicting that, too.

Our general view is that winter forecasts – even issued in the fall – should be viewed with some skepticism. That includes our own. Seasonal forecasts have progressed some and can be used as a guide, but still can and do go wrong. The most reliable seasonal forecasts for winter are issued in the late October and November time frame, although even they are not foolproof (as our winter forecast last year demonstrated, though previous years were more successful).

Because so much in the atmosphere can change between the summer and late fall, we don’t think issuing public-facing winter forecasts in the summer (or earlier) is a good idea.

“It’s equivalent to last year predicting the Skins would get into the playoffs based on their preseason record without having seen an injured [Robert] Griffin play,” says Wes Junker, our winter weather expert.  “The forecasts are entertaining and could be right but they also have just as much chance of being wrong.”

While we stop short of an issuing a winter outlook this early, we are not averse to discussing scenarios for winter at this point (and have done so), as long as such discussions are heavily qualified.  And we’ll happily share with you some of the forecasts other groups have issued.

What are some of the winter predictions issued so far?

Joe Bastardi, chief forecaster with WeatherBell Analytics –  a private firm, is forecasting colder than normal conditions in the eastern U.S. and snowy weather, especially in the Mid-Atlantic.

He first issued the graphical forecast posted below in April and is sticking with it (temperatures compared to normal are on the left and snow compared to normal is on the right).

Commodity Weather Group, based in Bethesda, Maryland, shares Bastardi’s general ideas about the winter, based on current information.

“Two of our top three scenarios provide a colder-than-normal and snowier-than-normal winter for the East Coast,” says  Matt Rogers, president.  (Disclaimer: Matt Rogers is also a contributing forecaster for the Capital Weather Gang).

Commodity Weather Group temperature forecast for Dec-Jan-Feb.
Commodity Weather Group temperature forecast for Dec-Jan-Feb.

WeatherTrends360, another private sector weather firm, has somewhat different ideas. It is generally calling for above average temperatures in the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest with near to below normal temperatures in the East. Snowfall in these areas is forecast to be near to below normal.

Can these forecasts be trusted?

I have stated Capital Weather Gang’s view – that it’s most likely too early to issue or put stock in forecasts for winter so many months away.

But our view certainly isn’t held universally.  Forecasting groups who provide outlooks for the weather-sensitive companies like utilities emphasize there’s demand for information about the winter as early as possible.

“Many companies and individuals must make decisions regarding the winter season many months beforehand, some even before summer,” says WeatherBell’s Bastardi.

Making these long-range forecasts is “difficult” Bastardi concedes.  “Any who claims to have the science perfected should not be trusted,” he says.

Commodity Weather Group’s Rogers stresses the importance of qualifying forecast in light of the challenges.

“Offering an early look that is balanced somewhat by various risks [of how the forecast could go wrong] provides a more realistic assessment,” he says. “We indeed offer our clients our first winter look by summer, but we also track three alternate scenarios that have a reasonable risk of verifying as well to offer a reasonable risk range.”

So how good are these forecasts?

“Experienced forecasters will forecast general trends correctly a majority of the time,” Bastardi says. “Our clients can attest to that.”

Meteorologists Dave Tolleris, who offers weather consulting services is extremely skeptical of the value of winter forecasts so soon.

“The winter pattern doesn’t set up until October or November at the earliest,” Tolleris says.

Tolleris concedes there’s a demand for the information from energy companies, but they know how to deal with risk, he says.

“If you give it to the general public, you need to bang home the idea that this is really preliminary,” he says. “The point is sometimes you can get late features that can throw off the entire winter forecast.”

Tolleris worries about the effect these forecasts have on the credibility of forecasting at shorter time range , like 30, 60, or even 90 days –  when there is more accuracy. “If you issue 6 months out and it busts, people laugh at it and say it can’t be done [at closer time ranges],” he says.

We (Capital Weather Gang) will issue our winter outlook around Halloween or the first week of November.  But trust we’ll continue to talk about developments in the weather pattern leading up to winter and what it might portend many times before that.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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