When asked by reporters what he believed the winter would look like, Paul Huth, researcher emeritus for the 8,000-acre Mohonk Preserve, would echo his friend and mentor Dan Smiley, naturalist and founder of the Smiley Research Center: “Well, it’s probably going to be cold and we might get some snow.”
For the 40 years that Huth worked at the Research Center, as an assistant to Smiley and then as the director, those words were light and humorous and stated the obvious — or at least what this region has seen in the past 127 years that the Smiley family and Preserve staff have been keeping diligent, detailed daily weather reports. The answers would vary: Sometimes there were three-day blizzards, other times temperatures dipping below zero degrees Fahrenheit for a week at a time; but there was always a substantial amount of snow, and there were always prolonged periods of below-freezing temperatures.
Due to the acceleration of carbon emissions into the atmosphere by human activity, the Earth is heating up, and as that core temperature rises, the Hudson Valley’s four season demarcations have become blurred, or seemingly arbitrary at times. This past winter was one of the warmest in the 127-year record. December was 3.2 degrees warmer than the historical average, which was notable; but then January came in at 35.6 degrees for the month: 10.6 degrees warmer than the historical average of 25 degrees, making it the second-warmest January on record.
February was not far behind, climbing up to 34.3 degrees, making it eight degrees warmer than the historical average. Dovetailing with the extreme warm winter weather was a dramatic decline in snowfall, with 20 inches less than the 127-year average.
There were still bursts of snowfall, particularly in December and then again in January, that allowed Nordic skiers to enjoy a few spins around Lake Awosting at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve, or along the Overcliff Carriage Road at the Mohonk Preserve, and even a few days of waxing on and waxing off those skis for a few miles of classic skiing along the River-to-Ridge Trail and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. It wasn’t a “ski season,” but more of a novelty when there was enough snowfall to groom and allow for skiing. Mohonk Mountain House had to produce its own snow artificially so that guests could enjoy favored winter activities like sledding.
The data that the Daniel Smiley Research Center has been collecting are a treasure trove of information for the region, but also for state, national and international organizations that track weather patterns and climate change. Their statistics are posted on the Mohonk Preserve website by month and archived.
Humans can find themselves in polarizing positions on many subjects, but one uniting factor that has never changed over time is people’s desire to talk about, fret over, predict, divine and generally complain about the weather. What better combination than to mix weather discussions with social media? Then you have a perfect storm of constant chatter all day, every day, reaching a fevered pitch when a snowstorm, hurricane, ice event or tornado is creeping up on the radar.
Report from founders of Hudson Valley Weather
To this end, Alex Marra and Bill Potter – owners and founders of Hudson Valley Weather, created in 2011 – have more than 162,000 followers on their very active Facebook page. They keep the region updated with daily and weekly forecasts specific to each part of the Hudson Valley, along with live weather reports, videos, warnings of extreme weather and “fireside chats” where they talk with followers on Facebook Live to discuss big weather events. Marra and Potter, along with a team of local weather aficionados, have even divided the Hudson Valley into nine distinct regions when doing their forecasts and reports.
When asked by Hudson Valley One what surprised him about this past winter’s weather, Marra said, “I wouldn’t qualify anything about weather as a ‘surprise.’ We have some of the greatest minds, the most sophisticated technology and radar and satellites that attempt to predict the weather, and they still get it wrong.” He added that in the weather business, “You can look at Farmer’s Almanac or groundhog behavior and they’re all equally reliable – kind of like a broken clock. Yes, at some point it will be right.”
That said, Marra did have some takeaways from the winter just past. Yes, he concurs, it was certainly a warm one. “We’ve been stuck in a very similar pattern for the past two to three years that has impacted both summer and winter,” he said. “We’ve been in a La Niña cycle where there is high pressure off Bermuda that pushes the warm, tropical air clockwise up the East Coast. Then we have the cold air that is always being pushed down from Canada, and we’re right where those two meet.” This, according to Marra, has created “consistent severe weather like ice storms, three confirmed tornadoes this past year…” He also said that the warm air being pushed up from Bermuda was responsible for the snow quickly changing from sleet to rain.
When talking about Hudson Valley weather, Marra said it’s “how the individual experienced winter. You could be in New Paltz and have experienced no memorable storms, but then you talk to someone in Tannersville who is still digging out from a 38-inch snowstorm. You could be getting three inches of snow in Poughkeepsie, and on the other side of Dutchess County they get hit with 20 inches of snow, or the next town over has lost power for three days. There are these microclimates that exist within the Hudson Valley.”
A big outdoor enthusiast and avid Catskill Mountain hiker in all seasons, Marra helped divide up the Hudson Valley into nine separate zones, each one with detailed forecasts that vary widely, particularly during winter weather events. “Various climate patterns come together to form weather; there are a lot of elements at play,” he said.
“This winter, December on average was two to three degrees warmer, January was 10 degrees above average, February six to eight degrees above and March came in two to four degrees above average, depending on where you live in the Hudson Valley.” Snowfall, while well below the historical averages, did vary to a large degree, with the Catskills picking up a large portion of the measurable frozen precipitation.
As for future patterns, Marra said that we’re transitioning to an El Niño cycle, which is driven by a warming of the ocean surface, or above-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. What does that mean for the Hudson Valley? I guess we’ll just have to crack open our Farmer’s Almanacs, track groundhog behavior or place bets on what time it is by referring to a broken clock.