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Winter Outlook: Some Hope for North Carolina Snow Lovers

North Carolina’s snow lovers were very disappointed last winter. There was little to no snowfall accumulation outside of the state’s mountains.  If you’re a fan of snow, there is some hope for you in the outlook for winter 2023-24. First, we should look at the global patterns that could affect the weather we will have in North Carolina over the next few months. This winter will be dominated by El Niño.

An El Niño winter in North Carolina

El Niño is the term used to describe when near-surface water temperatures of the Pacific Ocean near the equator are warmer than average.  The warmer waters cause the Pacific jet stream to move south of its neutral position. Because of the shift in the jet stream, areas in the northern U.S. and Canada are dryer and warmer than normal. However, the U.S. Gulf Coast and southeast are typically wetter than normal.

Wetter conditions in the three-month period from December through February could lead to more chances to see wintry precipitation in North Carolina. However, it’s not a guarantee, as the wet conditions would need to phase together with a period of cold weather. The State Climate Office of North Carolinafound that many locations in the state have seen above normal snowfall in winters, with a moderate to strong El Niño.

Not every El Niño winter leads to above average snowfall in North Carolina, though. For example, the last time an El Niño of similar strength was present across the state in winter was in 2015-16. That winter resulted in near or slightly below-normal snowfall across most of the state’s major climate sites.

It’s worth mentioning that several cities saw a powerful snowstorm across the mountains, foothills and western Piedmont in Jan. 2016 while central North Carolina saw ice, which is not an event with as much recorded information as snowfall in the state’s history. A freezing rain event, or ice storm, can be even more of a problem than snow. An ice storm often results in not only dangerous travel conditions but extended power outages due to fallen trees and power lines.

El Niño and severe weather in winter

Severe weather has an even clearer pattern than winter weather. Damaging winds, hail and tornadoes occur more commonly in El Niño winters than otherwise in North Carolina. The last El Niño of similar strength in the winter of 2015-16 saw three severe weather outbreaks in the state including the February 24th outbreak which resulted in seven tornadoes in eastern North Carolina and 88 other instances of strong winds or hail resulting in an estimated total of over $1.6 million in damage. In contrast, the winter of 2009-10 did not see any reports of hail or tornadoes. Instead, it was flash flooding or damaging winds that occurred.

Dealing with the drought

That brings us to precipitation, which El Niño is famous for producing more of than average across the southern and southeastern United States.  With a state-wide average precipitation of 11 to 12 inches each year, 62% of El Niño winters have been wetter than average while only 29% of La Niña winters have had the same feat. In 2010 and 2016, the state saw an average of over seven inches of rainfall in December alone.

That should be good news for the drought conditions that continue to grow across the state and at the end of November. Most of the state is in a rainfall deficit since the beginning of September, with parts of the coast like Wilmington missing over eight inches of rainfall. It’s the first time in over six years that we’ve had parts of North Carolina in what’s considered an extreme drought.

If a drought lasts for an especially long period and becomes more severe for the affected area, the region sees a larger deficit in rainfall. Drought recovery then requires the normal precipitation over a certain period in addition to more precipitation than average to recover from the drought. 

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information with the National Atmospheric Administration, most of North Carolina will need to see between 11 to 18 inches of precipitation over the next three months to remove the drought across the state. Drought affects water resources, such as for homes that rely on well water. It also causes a greater risk for fire danger, as we’ve seen across the state already with recent wildfires in western North Carolina.

How about the outlook for winter temperatures?

Unfortunately, El Niño winters in North Carolina have no clear trend with temperature. 35% of these winters have been warmer than average along with 39% of La Niña winters. Neither pattern seems bent toward producing a likelier chance or sway in our temperatures, but regardless of the pattern, our winter temperatures have been trending warmer and warmer year to year.

Source: Spectrum News1