Inspired by the city’s off-the-charts winter so far, University of Oklahoma meteorologist Sam Lillo mused on Twitter, “after absolutely destroying the past record, might as well go after simulated ones now right?”
That set him on a statistical coding spree aimed at generating a million-year synthetic dataset of plausible winters based on actual historical data in Boston back to 1938. To do this, he parsed through every three-day period (to maintain meteorological plausibility and prevent the possibility of back-to-back-to-back 20-inch snowstorms) and then randomly generated a set of hypothetical winters consistent with the city’s climate history. His analysis shows that given a static climate, Boston can expect a winter with a 30-day stretch like this one only once approximately every 26,315 years — 38 out of a million.
For comparison purposes, I asked Lillo to run the same calculation for D.C.’s “snowmaggeddon” winter of 2009-2010. His conclusion was that that winter was only a 1-in 238 year occurrence, a whopping 110 times more likely than Boston’s month of winter misery.
Of course the climate isn’t static. For example, Chris Mooney has recently argued that abnormally warm waters off the East Coast this winter are boosting the moisture availability in snowstorms, and making new snowfall records more likely.
“It’s very hard to actually have any perspective when we are so far beyond the previous record right now,” Lillo said. Hence the statistical analysis.
Lillo also calculated that, over the same time period, Boston is approaching its all-time coldest 30-day period as a persistent west coast ridge of high pressure shunts Arctic air southward. The extreme snowfall plus extreme cold have led to a record snowpack in New England, with all its associated problems. (Like, you know, piles so big they interfere with landing aircraft.)
That means some incredible records continue to be broken. Boston is on pace for near-record snowfall for Anchorage, and has already eclipsed the 30-day snowfall record for Buffalo — a city known for its intense lake-effect fueled snowstorms, like the one just a few months ago that shut down the region.
In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Lillo told me he was “very, very surprised” at his results. “I mean, I knew it was a rare case. Just the fact that we absolutely destroyed the previous record is a testament to how significant of a situation this was.”
“There’s something to be said for getting stuck in a pattern … but this is incredible from a statistical standpoint,” Lillo said. “Boston was just literally in the bullseye for every single storm.”