December was colder than normal. January was colder than normal. The first third of February was colder than normal. And Washington has 3.1 inches of snow to show for it.
We haven’t seen so much cold air and so little snow up to this point since the winter of 1985-86.
D.C. lives on the temperature edge during winter. In almost every snow scenario, the capital is hovering right around the golden number, 32 degrees, which will make or break a winter storm.
So when it’s particularly cold, that tends to help our snow prospects vs. times when temperatures are more marginal.
But not this year. Even with spells of deeply entrenched Arctic air, snow has proved elusive.
Cold winters tend to be snowy winters, especially lately
When we’ve had back-to-back colder-than-normal December and January in recent decades, we’ve usually cashed in with snow.
In the winter of 2013-14, the last time we had a consecutively cold December and January, snowfall was above average (8.1 inches).
We also had below-average temperatures in December and January and above-average snow in 2010-11 (9.4 inches), 2009-10 (24 inches), 2003-04 (12.4 inches) and 2002-03 (11.6 inches).
But then there are the exceptions.
The last time we had a cold December and January but below-average snow was the winter of 2000-01, when 4.4 inches accumulated — still, more than this year’s 3.1 inches. Like this winter, we had a La Niña, which tends to depress snow potential.
As mentioned, the winter of 1985-86 was the last time we had even less snow than this one during a cold December-January stretch. But an onslaught of snow hit in the final two-thirds of February, and 12.9 inches fell that month.
Over the long run, the signal for a lot of snow when it’s cold is there but not as strong as recently. Of the 50 instances of consecutively colder-than-normal Decembers and Januarys since 1888-89, 54 percent have had above-average snow and 46 percent have had less than average.
But what does it mean for the future?
Like a double rainbow, we may never know what a cold and snowless first two-thirds of winter means for the rest of it. But, examining the past, we can gain insight.
The 21 winters before this one that were cold and snowless at the start generally didn’t have a lot of snow toward the end, either. The end-of-season snowfall totals in these years average 11.9 inches (dating from 1888-89) and 10.2 inches since measurements began at Reagan National Airport (those winters are shown in the chart above).
Eleven of these 21 winters closed with single-digit snowfall totals and, at National Airport, none of the years matched or exceeded the recent 30-year snowfall average of 15.4 inches.
Considering Washington has had 3.1 inches of snow so far this winter, if we managed even double-digit amounts for the winter, that would be quite a snowy feat.
If winter ended today, our snow total of 3.1 inches would be tied as the sixth least snowy on record. There has been no accumulating snowfall in D.C. since Jan. 17, when 0.4 inches was recorded.
Going from Jan. 18 to Feb. 15 with zero accumulation is unusual. The last time it happened was 2008 and before that 1999.
However, we still have a window of heightened snow prospects historically through about the first week to 10 days of March.
Warm patterns, like the kind we’re in right now, tend to not last forever during the cold season.
If we can time a pattern change right, there is still potential for bigger snows, even in a season so far without.
In the past, we’ve been able to go from near where we sit now to near or above normal by the end of the season. We did so as recently as 2014-15, when D.C. went from 3.7 inches to 18.6 inches at the end of winter.
In recent days, we’ve talked about the potential for wet snow or mixed precipitation on Saturday night. Beyond that, after a spring fling next week, the pattern may become more favorable for cold and snow by the beginning of March, as Matt Rogers discussed Wednesday.
There is still hope.
(Jason Samenow contributed to this post.)