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Winter’s coming: Here’s what to know about long-range weather outlooks

Both hurricane and winter outlooks can offer value, but have limitations worth understanding

Brandy Mullis, left, and Bobbi Mullis take a selfie at the Tidal Basin in Washington on March 12. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
5 min

Long-range weather outlooks, those months-ahead prophesies of hurricane season storm counts and winter weather woes, garner ever-greater public interest. The annual rite of spring in the weather forecasting world is the projection of tropical storm activity for the coming months. The fall version — those popular winter outlooks — augurs how miserably cold or snowy it could be.

Face it — we love these semiannual pronouncements. They nourish our natural desire to know the future. The media loves them too, reveling in the soaring views and clicks generated by the presaging of the messaging.

There is benefit in the information shared, helping us be prepared for any calamitous weather that might come our way. Awareness and preparedness, kindled anew, is never a waste. But it’s also reasonable to critique those extended predictions when they appear to be wrong. They are, after all, a mix of intuition and emerging science, subject to a blurring of the lines between the two.

They often can capture the broad strokes of weather features months ahead of time, but seldom can pin down the finer details.

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Shortcomings and successes in the hurricane season outlook

As for this year’s hurricane outlooks, recall the early expectations for an active season. That was the view of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was shared by many other forecasters.

As it turned out, things remained remarkably docile through late summer, and many of those predictions were walked back before the sudden increase in storms that flourished over the warm ocean waters after mid-September.

Hurricane Ian provided the red-alert moment on how things can pivot so rapidly. That storm, plus a host of others, coexisted after the typical mid-September seasonal peak and swiftly redirected our focus away from the relative calm. On Sept. 24, there were four named tropical systems at the same time in the Atlantic and Caribbean. It was a remarkable turnaround from earlier weeks.

The quiet-season narrative, and notably our perceptions, changed dramatically with Ian, reminding us of the dire impacts a single storm can bring, regardless of the number of storms predicted for the season. It served as an essential reminder that the value in those early hurricane season outlooks is not diminished by inaccuracies of total tallies. They provide focus on the need to be cognizant of risk.

Winter outlook caveats

Winter outlooks, ironically, are increasingly pushed out earlier and earlier, overlapping markedly with the hurricane season. Even though longer lead times typically reduce accuracy, it’s becoming an intensely competitive landscape for those cold-season conjectures, and it’s effective marketing to get the word out sooner rather than later.

A Google search for “2023 winter forecasts” yields dozens of hits, many of them issued during the heat of summer when thoughts of winter are distant. More winter outlooks are rolled out by September and October. There are the usual sources for those, including “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” plus social media faves for weather (there are a lot of them) that are quickly gaining ground.

The National Weather Service issues its official winter outlook in October. Throw in local TV meteorologists taking their shot at it, and you have a feast of forecasts to pick from.

For the winter of 2022-2023, most analyses are levered largely on the same fulcrum as the tropical-season ones — La Niña. The Pacific cool sea-surface temperature anomaly is tied to seasonal weather trends over large areas of the world.

“Overall, La Niña leads to a warmer/drier winter season across the southern tier of the nation,” said Larry Brown, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Va., in an email interview. “The northern Plains/upper midwest have a correlation to below normal temperatures and the Pacific NW shows a signal to be wetter than average.”

Indeed, La Niña has been notable and continues to be unusually persistent as we move into the winter season, but direct connections to impacts on the weather months ahead are often (and usually) confounded by myriad other shorter-term factors that can overwhelm the effects of La Niña.

“The problem is that these shorter duration phenomena are essentially unpredictable out more than say 3-4 weeks in advance,” Brown said. “So giving an accurate winter seasonal outlook in October is analogous to expecting that NHC [the National Hurricane Center] would have the track of Hurricane Ian forecast perfectly 7 days in advance. Impossible.”

The lack of predictability in the short-term influencers is an important consideration when viewing any of these longer-range outlooks. The big-picture perspectives, those weather predictions made months in advance, cannot ever bring clarity of detail, but they do provide the canvas to inform us of what may come.

Looking for weather updates on the time scale of weeks and months? One great source for monthly and seasonal outlooks is the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service. They provide forecasts in varying time ranges that are updated at least monthly.

Jim Duncan recently retired from his 40-year career as chief meteorologist with NBC12 WWBT-TV in Richmond. He runs his own meteorological consulting firm, Jim Duncan LLC, serving clients in media, education and other industries.