Experts predict another mild winter for Delmarva

Local meteorologist Harlan Williams of Smyrna stands next to a snow pile dumped during a storm several years ago. (Submitted photo)

Those who put their trust in nature and the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” for winter weather may be checking the thickness of corn husks, when crickets arrive, departure time of ducks and geese, acorn abundance, shape of permission kernels and when squirrels gather nuts.

“If you watch the cows and the animals, they know what’s going to happen,” says local meteorologist Harlan Williams of Smyrna. “How do the birds know to fly low? It is amazing. Usually, a lot of times they are right. They are more likely to be right than we are, as a meteorologist, sometimes.”

Raised on a 34-acre farm between Laurel and Delmar, Mr. Williams, armed with a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Millersville University in 1999, has compiled his prediction for winter 2020-21. He’s calling for a somewhat mild winter – a long-range forecast that mirrors to some extent those of national weather experts.

“I think for the Mid-Atlantic, for our area, it looks to be mild. For temperatures, I see 40s and 50s for most of December even into January. But then February is a little iffy right now,” said Mr. Williams.

In December, Mr. Williams anticipates a couple Arctic clippers, fast-moving weather makers from Alberta, Canada that sweep through on cold nights dumping relatively “dry” snow.

“There could be a dusting or so maybe a couple times in December,” he said. “Then in January, it kind of goes 40s and 50s again and back in February it is either going to warm up as some models are saying or there is that one chance we get that big snow. Will it be a blizzard, I don’t know?”

La Nina, the cooling of parts of the central Pacific that alters weather patterns worldwide, is the word at Salisbury-based WMDT-TV 47, where chief meteorologist Daniel Johnson and the station’s weather team – meteorologists Sloane Haines and Ulises Garcia – have formulated their winter 2020-21 forecast. Their forecast is scheduled to air Nov. 12.

Channel 47’s capsulized sneak-peek projection?

“Probably a warmer than normal winter overall. That is the consensus now. We’re definitely favoring above normal temperatures,” said Mr. Johnson.

“But I will tell you this. The last five winters, four out of the five have been warmer than normal temperatures but three out of those five we’ve had above average snow. So, just because it’s warmer than normal doesn’t mean we’re not going to get a good amount of snow. People are like, ‘How can you get snow in a warmer than normal winter?’ It’s just the average of the temperatures overall.”

Local meteorologists are forecasting warmer than normal temperatures, but aren’t ruling out winter storm events during the La Nina weather pattern. (Delaware State News file photo/Glenn Rolfe)

Mr. Johnson said WMDT’s forecast hinges on the current weather pattern.

“Every year we’re usually in an El Nino or a La Nina, but sometimes we are kind of stuck in the middle, which is ENSO neutral. This year, though, we are in a weak La Nina, which has helped bring a record-breaking hurricane season. The La Nina brings more hurricanes typically in the summer season but when it comes to winter here on Delmarva, La Nina typically brings a warmer than normal winter,” Mr. Johnson said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have any snow. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a blizzard. It doesn’t mean we won’t have record snow. It is definitely possible. We’ve had a lot of snow with La Nina patterns before.”

The expectation this year is for a weak to moderate La Nina.

“If it gets strong, then that decreases our chances of getting snow. That’s what we typically see on average,” Mr. Johnson explained. “So, the stronger the La Nina, the lesser the chance of getting a good amount of snow. The problem for La Nina for snow lovers is La Ninas also give you a lower chance of having the big storms. El Ninos give you a greater chance at having those big storms that come from the south that have a lot of that Gulf of Mexico moisture. That is how we get our big blizzards, usually the ones that come from the South.”

While El Ninos increase that chance of snow, Mr. Johnson notes there was an El Nino last winter, but “it was more so a very weak one. It was almost ENSO neutral. I definitely think we’re getting more snow than last winter.”

Mr. Williams has amassed more than 800 Facebook followers, including farmers and others who turn to him for weather.

“I’ve been doing it for a while. I have friends that farm and I have a lot of friends in the farming community. Down in Sussex is where a lot of them are. I also have friends that do propane; they worry about the gas and how much to supply,” said Mr. Williams, who says his passion for weather and sports is surpassed only by his love for his 10-year-old daughter.

“Anybody that will talk weather, I’ll talk to them. I say my two cents. There is always somebody affected by weather. What I always say is, ‘I am not 100 percent right. I am always 50/50; I’m either right or wrong.’”

A 1993 Laurel High School graduate, Mr. Williams interned at WBOC-TV back in 1999 with meteorologist Bob Burnett-Kurie. He also did weather radio spots for the former CAT Country radio station. Currently, he’s a volunteer spotter for the National Weather Service’s Skywarn program.

“Working on the farm and doing stuff on the farm, weather is everything. So, I just decided I would major in weather,” Mr. Williams said. “I’ve done odd and ends stuff. I’ve done a little bit of storm chasing.”

He turns to numerous sources in forecasting weather.

“I look at AccuWeather. I look at The Weather Channel. I look at WBOC, WMDT, and all those guys and see what they are saying,” said Mr. Williams. “The Farmer’s Almanac is something I will read. It’s always in the back of my mind. But then I look at it myself and do my own thing.”

Across the nation

This season, two-thirds of the United States should get a warmer than normal winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted.

For the Eastern U.S., big snowstorms or blizzards aren’t usually associated with La Nina as those storm events are more likely with its warming ocean counterpart, El Nino, according to Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

However, he added that extreme events are not something meteorologists can see in seasonal forecasts.

Mr. Williams agrees to some degree.

“The La Nina, they actually show is weakening some. And if the La Nina weakens, that allows for more storms to possibly dip down to the South. And if the storm dips down to the South, around here is when we really get a lot of snow. It gathers moisture from Gulf of Mexico all the way the Atlantic. It looks like that’s possible in February,” said Mr. Williams. “And that’s where the Farmers’ Almanac is saying, the second week of February. They are calling for a snowstorm in February. I get what they are saying. But it is the La Nina season right now.”

“Twelve inches is what I always say for around here, the average. This year, 10 inches is what I see for the most. I don’t see it being like a major monster year for snow,” said Mr. Williams.

Snow lovers this winter are hoping for replays such as this, which brought about a foot of snow to portions of Downstate several years ago. (Delaware State News file photo/Glenn Rolfe)

Mr. Halpert also doesn’t expect the dreaded polar vortex to be much of a factor this year, except maybe in the Northern Plains and Great Lakes region.

The polar vortex is the gigantic circular upper-air pattern that pens the cold close to the North Pole. When it weakens, the cold wanders away from the pole and brings bone-chilling weather to northern and eastern parts of the U.S.

While Mr. Halpert doesn’t see that happening much this winter, an expert in the polar vortex does.

Judah Cohen, a winter weather specialist for the private firm Atmospheric Environmental Research, sees a harsher winter for the Northeast than NOAA does. He bases much of his forecasting on what’s been happening in the Arctic and Siberian snow cover in October. His research shows that the more snow on the ground in Siberia in October, the harsher the winter in the eastern United States as the polar vortex weakens and wanders south.

Siberian snow

Snow cover in Siberia was low in early October, but it is catching up fast and looks to be heavier than normal by the end of the month, Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Williams concurs.

“It looks like January into February maybe the polar vortex makes its return, and the cold air moves in here,” said Mr. Williams. “That’s right when the Farmers’ Almanac is saying early February for that blizzard.”

Mr. Johnson said his weather team also checks snow cover in the vast reaches of northeastern Russia.

“We look at Siberian snow cover, which he (Mr. Cohen) has done a lot of research,” Mr. Johnson said. “October, it looks to be a healthier snow cover in Siberia. The good thing with having a lot of snow cover in Siberia with the La Nina is La Ninas also favor very strong Arctic fronts, Arctic outbreaks, especially if that polar vortex can get involved.”

Mr. Johnson added it appears the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is favoring the extreme northern tier of the nation to be impacted by that and not so much the Mid-Atlantic.

“But if those make it far enough south and they can combine with moisture there is a chance we could get some snows this winter. That is what a lot of snow lovers are hoping for,” said Mr. Johnson.

“Here at 47 ABC and a lot of other meteorologists that put out their forecasts, we look at other factors, not just El Nino and La Nina,” said Mr. Johnson. “Not every El Nino and La Nina are the same. There are other factors, like the NAO – the North Atlantic Oscillation. We look at different pressures in the North Atlantic because what the pressure is like up there can really drive our forecasts here.”

The WMDT-TV 47 weather team from left: meteorologists Ulises Garcia, Daniel Johnson and Sloane Haines. (Submitted photo)

Mr. Williams turns to three U.S. cities in compiling his weather predictions.

“A lot of people don’t do this,” said Mr. Williams. “Memphis; if the winds are out of the southwest and you follow what Memphis is, within about 18 to 24 hours we get very similar weather. It’s not exact. Temperatures are not exact as Memphis is usually warmer. If the winds are more westerly, I look at St. Louis, and if it’s a northwest wind, I look at Chicago. If Chicago gets dumped on major snow and the winds are out of the northwest … we are probably not going to get major snow off the Great Lakes but we’re going to see colder and probably wetter.”

“The last winter we had a La Nina on Delmarva was 2017-18, and we actually had a good amount of snow that winter. We had above average snowfall,” said Mr. Johnson. “So that could get some snow lovers excited, like myself.”

WMDT 47’s forecast will air Nov. 12, first on the News Hour, starting at 5:30 p.m., then on the 11 p.m. news and again the morning of Friday the 13th during Good Morning Delmarva.

“I do want to say and make it clear to not worry about the temperature forecast,” said Mr. Johnson.

And he says to not bet the ranch on long-range weather predictions.

“Long-range forecasts are quite difficult,” said Mr. Johnson. “The goal of these long-range forecasts is to give people an idea, kind of an idea of where it is favoring. Clearly, it can be dead wrong. Meteorologists have been wrong in the past. Like last winter we all thought it was going to be a very cold and snowy one … and we pretty much had nothing.”

“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Are we going to have snow this year?’” said Mr. Williams. “Yes, but I don’t think that it will be much. But we could have one big storm, which that is what the Farmers’ Almanac is saying. That is what is in the back of my mind: ‘Is that right that that one storm is going to be our snow for the year?’ And it looks like it could be.”