A couple of weeks from now, when you’re enjoying a warm spring afternoon and your memories of January and February are receding, you might find yourself wondering: Was the winter of 2013-14 really that bad?
Here’s your answer: Yes, it really was.
“This winter was largely unrelenting,” said Eric Horst, meteorologist at Millersville University.
Even considered separately, the season’s temperatures and snowfall stand out in the region’s historical weather record.
We had the second-coldest January-to-March period ever, and the fifth highest total snowfall.
Put the snow and cold together, and you have a once-in-a-generation experience, Horst said.
“You have to go back a good 20 years to find a similar winter,” he said, citing 1993-94 as the most recent comparable winter. Prior to that, you have to go back to 1978-79, he said.
The unusual weather caused headaches for municipalities, school districts and ordinary citizens.
It generated above-average business for plow operators, tree services, pizza shops ... and ski resorts.
Roundtop Mountain Resort in York County enjoyed a 115-day ski season, breaking its old record by one day, spokesman Chris Dudding said.
The resort is still compiling attendance totals, but “it’ll end up being one of our better seasons, without a doubt,” he said.
Horst readily admitted he had no idea this winter would be so severe. Last fall, there was no way to tell, as his comments at the time indicate.
“The atmosphere has kind of a poker face. There is no tell on what cards she’s going to deal us at this time,” Horst told the Intelligencer Journal/New Era in an Oct. 15 article.
To get an early read on North American winters, forecasters look at equatorial Pacific Ocean temperatures.
Last fall, those temperatures were neutral, indicating neither a cooler, wetter “El Niño” winter nor a warmer, drier “La Niña” one.
So what changed?
According to Horst, a ridge of high pressure formed early in the season over the Yukon and western Canada. It stayed put and acted as a barrier, diverting polar air eastward and southward into the Midwest and Northeast.
That in turn kept the Southwest unusually hot and dry through much of the winter.
Such ridges form spontaneously and aren’t unusual, Horst said. Some winters, a ridge sets up on the other side of the continent, near Greenland, he said.
In March, the ridge dissipated, and jet stream currents are now completely different, Horst said.
“That’s just the nature of the jet stream,” he said.
All the usual signs of spring should appear here over the next two weeks, he said: Warm days, trees and flowers bursting into bloom, allergies kicking into high gear.
Days with northwest winds may be a little cooler for awhile because of the past winter, he said.
That’s because those winds cross western Canada, which is still snowy, and the Great Lakes, whose waters are still icy cold, en route to central Pennsylvania, Horst said.
But that effect will ebb, he said.
This winter’s weather doesn’t say anything about how next winter will shape up, he said.
For now, any clues along those lines lie in the currents of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Some very preliminary signs suggest that 2014-15 will be an El Niño winter, he said.
“It’s a safe bet to say it’s not going to be as cold” as 2013-14, if only because the season’s relentless cold was so unusual, he said.
On the other hand, El Niño winters tend to be stormy, so, “In terms of snow, we could see a fair amount,” he said.