Weather is the one place where we all seek common ground, despite the ground being frozen, thawed, snow-covered, rain-saturated or dry as a bone in a desert. In fact, for the past month we’ve all been living inside of this Covid snow globe, peering outside the window of our apartment, car or even out of the corner of our Blu-Ray glasses to see how fast and furious or fair and faint those snowflakes are flying. Hudson Valley One spoke to several weather experts whose gaze along the horizon has some science and data and analysis behind the lens.
According to Natalie Feldsine, research collection and citizen science coordinator for the Daniel Smiley Research Center at the Mohonk Preserve, the storm the area received on February 1 “has been our largest storm this winter, where we received 14 inches of snow” at the Mountain House. Since that time, she said that they have seen “a number of small consecutive snow events throughout the latter half of the winter season, and the cold weather has allowed the snow to remain on the ground.”
The latter part of the winter has certainly differed from the onset, which was unseasonably warm, with December reaching almost five degrees hotter than the 125-year average recorded daily at the Smiley Research Center. Despite that surge of warmth, there were at least 14 inches of snowfall in December, and according to meteorologist Mark Main of the National Weather Service in Albany, “The snowstorm we had on December 17 was among our top ten of all time in the Capital District.”
Like Feldsine, Main says that “There has been a lot of weather activity recently, particularly south of the Capital region” — most recently culminating in that long-drawn-out snowfall that left somewhere between two and four inches in Hudson Valley region beginning on Thursday and running through Saturday morning. “We’re looking at possibly another weather system to come in on Monday or Tuesday.”
The broader view, he said, was the “cold weather systems that are happening across the country. This is analogous with a La Niña winter that occurs when ocean waters across the eastern equatorial part of the Pacific Ocean are colder than normal.” This pulls cool air across North America — which the country is now seeing in the Midwest, and of course in Texas.
“Historically, it has been somewhat predictable — as much as weather can be — that we have a slower start to winter in a La Niña pattern, and then the second half of winter is loaded,” said Alex Marra, the president, founder and senior forecaster of Hudson Valley Weather (www.hudsonvalleyweather.com). Like the Albany-based meteorologist, Marra concurred that the “big story here is the historical cold that is happening in the Midwest all the way down to Texas. It is a polar vortex, which happens every year; but this year it came further south and hit the Lower 48. The thing is, Texas is not used to this, and in the Northeast we are. We’re prepared. It’s not a catastrophe. They haven’t had anything like this since the 1980s.”
Marra and his fellow forecaster with Hudson Valley Weather, Bill Potter, have been studying the radar around the clock and holding “fireside chats” live on Facebook — where they have more than 120,000 “likes” to their page, and upwards of a million hits during major weather events. “Granted, that could be the same person refreshing our site 15 times a day; but whenever there’s a major weather event, or a threat of one, our page generates a lot of traffic.”
It also generates a sort of wild-weather cyber-community, with people posting their measurements of the snow, giving warnings of poor road conditions, offering to help plow someone out — and occasionally, like any online format, a snit breaks out. “There can be people who get upset when they don’t get their ‘two inches’ that we predicted,” laughed Marra. “It’s kind of funny. People are passionate about weather, and it’s one of those conversation commodities where everyone can join the dialogue.”
The dialogue and the weather are certainly heating up. The cold temperature that much of the country is experiencing is an aberration, or possibly a signature of the more “extreme” weather events that are happening as a result of climate change. The Smiley Research Center, poised on top of the Shawangunk Ridge near Lake Mohonk, has been collecting, by hand, the daily temperature, precipitation, ice thickness, snowfall, frosts and first signs of fauna for more than 45,000 consecutive days. Because of this longevity, the Preserve’s weather collection has been used by scientists around the country to help monitor and identify the extent of global climate change, because researchers need access to reliable data over the longest period possible. The Center has reported that since the Smiley family’s readings began, the average daily temperatures have risen from 46.7 degrees in 1896 to 49.9 degrees in 2019. The alarm bells certainly rang loud and clear this year, with July coming in as the hottest month in the 125-year average, the summer of 2020 being the second-hottest and the entire year of 2020 being the warmest on record, with temperatures 4.5 degrees above average. It was also the second-least snowy year on record, with snowfall being almost 37 inches below record.
“It’s definitely getting warmer,” said Marra, who noted his appreciation for the long-term weather collection data that the Smiley Research Center has acquired over the past 125 years. “I think what people need to understand is that a cold snap in Texas or a nor’easter in New York is weather. That’s completely different than climate,” which measures the larger patterns of temperature, precipitation, glaciers, ocean weather systems and all of the flora, fauna and wildlife patterns that exist within the areas they’re monitoring. Having a good day of sledding or skiing — particularly if the snow was manmade – does not convey any indication of the health and well-being of the planet.
While the larger climate-change narrative and polar vortex seizure of the Midwest and the Texas power-grid failure nightmare dominate the weather headlines, here in the Hudson Valley, many people are just happy to be able to let their kids build snowmen (and -women), throw on a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes, go ice skating or simply lie down on the cold ground and let the snowflakes melt on their ruby-red cheeks.
Asked what he believes could happen as winter winds up, Marra was a good sport. “Don’t hold me to it, but I think that things will settle down for the most part this week; and then we will have one or two more snowstorms before we get to spring.” And although the February storm was not a record-setter, according to Feldsine, “The combination of heavy snowfall with cold temperatures has allowed a consistent snow cover through the month of February.”
With everyone trying to get outside and avoid the Covid blues, there is nary a ski nor snowshoe to be found. But there’s still time to shake that winter paperweight globe and dream of making forts and castles and snow angels on the frozen pond.