What to Expect this Winter 2023-2024

Jonathan Carr
By November 30, 2023 17:00

What to Expect this Winter 2023-2024

Forecast Discussion: This is not a winter forecast. I am not going to tell you your fortune in the form of snow inches or ice accumulation between now and late March. Just want to be crystal clear about that. I do not typically forecast past the 7-day period for expected surface conditions. I do not typically forecast past the 14-day window for expected temperature trends and pattern changes. As most of us know here in NJ, every 7 days can bring completely different atmospheric and weather conditions. We’re one of the smallest states with extremely volatile weather and we have our own micro-climates ranging from elevations to coastal plain. With that said, this will be mostly a winter primer and current snapshot, rather than an outlook. Let’s dive in.

How does it snow in New Jersey?

From December through March, solar rays hit NJ at a shallow angle compared to in the summer when rays are more perpendicular to the NJ surface. This means less solar heating which = colder temperatures. Also, during this period, the polar jet stream relaxes around the N pole due to high pressure building directly over the N Pole. This pushes the polar jet stream southward towards NJ latitude in some places. Typically, in return, the polar jet stream remains at higher latitudes adjacent to where the polar jet dips. This gives us the amplification of the jet stream which ultimately determines where a trough (dip) and ridge (spike) set up. In many/most cases, when the W US is warm, the E US is cold and vice-versa. This is due to the amplification and reciprocation of the jet stream wobbles. When NJ is very cold, we’re likely in a trough. When NJ is very mild, we’re likely under a ridge. So, to summarize at this point, NJ sees shallow angles of diurnal surface heating in the winter which, when timed with a trough, produces temperatures cold enough for precipitation to freeze and fall as snow.

Ice is a different story. It usually falls in the form of sleet or freezing rain during winter months (NOT HAIL – that’s associated with warmer month thunderstorm convection). Sometimes it is cold enough at the surface to support below-freezing temperatures while the air aloft is above freezing. This is when precipitation starts out as liquid (rain) then freezes when it hits the surface. This is called freezing rain. Other times, it is aloft that is cold with an above-freezing surface or maybe just a shallow layer of warmth in the low-mid levels. This will produce sleet. We can discuss this more when it becomes possible later this winter. For now, we’ll focus on snow which assumes NJ is in wintertime with cold air around (likely under a trough).

Synoptic Snowstorms – This is the event that all snow lovers crave the most. Synoptic means a region-wide sized event with feet of snow possible. This is when blizzard criteria is the most probable of any kind of NJ snow event. In most cases this involves a well-organized low in the form of a mid-latitude cyclone. An upper low is usually involved at the center of the trough along with a surface low that rides the front of the trough. The more the upper and lower low interact, the stronger the low gets. There are a few types of synoptic snowstorms that affect NJ. First is a Miller A. A Miller-A means the low originates in the Gulf of Mexico region and tracks up the east coast slightly offshore. A Miller B system originates off the Pacific Ocean. It makes landfall somewhere on the W US and tracks across the US from W to E typically towards the Great Lakes. It then transfers to a coastal low somewhere near OBX or Delmarva before then continuing like a Miller-A would towards the high-latitude Atlantic Ocean. Our most historic storms have been Miller-As (March 1993) and Bs (Presidents Day Weekend 2003). When I forecast specific events that arise this winter, I will be able to identify the type of Miller storm it is fairly early.

There are other less-common scenarios that can produce a synoptic-scale snowstorm. A clipper can sometimes bomb out into something bigger off the coast. A low can cross the US from Pacific to Atlantic, like a Miller-B, but without any transfer. Again, these are rare but can happen. Most synoptic snowstorms for New Jersey are Miller-A or Miller-B. Sometimes a low tracks to the NW of NJ and the SW flow warm sector collides with cold air already in place over NJ. Therefore, snow is forced to the ground before the warm sector takes any level below freezing. We saw one of these around Valentines Day in 2014. They are known as SouthWest Flow Events (SWFE) and are incredibly challenging to forecast: “How much snow can fall before the warm torch sets in.”

In all the examples I mentioned so far, the sub-tropical jet stream is involved (S/SE side of low) in providing an abundance of warmer moisture that feeds the snow making machine (N/NW side of low). These storms can produce anything from a few inches to feet of lower-ratio (wetter more compact) snow for NJ.

Clippers – A Clipper is a low that originates from W Canada, typically SW Canada. You might hear the term “Alberta Clipper” since the low originated in the Canadian Province of Alberta. Unlike Miller-A (low approaches NJ from S/SW) or Miller-B (low approaches NJ from the W before the transfer), a clipper approaches NJ from the NW or W/NW. Clippers are moisture starved. They do not have the sub-tropical jet to feed them moisture. No Pacific tap, no gulf or Atlantic tap. Only a little bit of moisture from what isn’t frozen in the Great Lakes. However, the colder nature of the northern jet squeezes out the moisture in the form of high-ratio snow. The colder the atmosphere, the more inches of snow are produced from every inch of scientific liquid measurement that falls. Clippers are also quick moving. So, a quick punch of finer and powdery snow that normally produces anything from a coating to a few inches. I’ve seen them sometimes approach 6 inches but that is super rare. In a clipper setup, NJ will already be cold so instant stickage occurs on non-treated areas. Like the other bigger events mentioned so far, this type of storm will be identified early in the 4-7 day forecast period.

Inverted Troughs (IVT) – Sometimes a low stalls or retrogrades out in the ocean and reaches back to the E US coast with a trough of lower pressures. The E US side of this mini trough swings through the NorthEast or Mid-Atlantic US in a counterclockwise swiping motion and the tip of it is where significant+ snowfall can occur. It’s extremely localized and changes drastically from model run to model run. Like SWFEs, IVTs are forecasting nightmares. But we can typically forecast with good accuracy when one is going to happen. We just can’t pinpoint the 11th hour shifting which ultimately determines the very small jackpot zone.

Lake Effect Snow – We saw some lake effect streamers the other day. This is when there is cold flow blowing from NW to SE over the Great Lakes without a low…just flow. The Great Lakes evaporate whatever is not frozen and form lateral streamers (easily seen on radar) towards NJ of a micro snow making machine. Areas closest to the lakes (Buffalo/Syracuse/etc.) benefit most from this type of snow. NJ never really sees more than a coating to an inch or two from such…and it’s very localized from N to S. Look for this after a cold front has pushed through NJ from the NW or W/NW (very cold and windy out of the NW or W/NW). Also, during the coldest point of the year, most of the Great Lakes are frozen on the surface which inhibits evaporation. Therefore, lake effect snow is more common this time of year (November-early December) and later just before spring starts.

Ocean Effect Snow – This is a super rare occurrence. It requires very cold conditions over NJ with light N/NE to E/NE flow off the ocean. Same principles as lake effect snow, just off the ocean instead. I’ve never witnessed more than a coating from this type of NJ snow event.

There might be a few other very rare ways that NJ sees snow. Please feel free to drop a comment if I missed anything. But these are the most common that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. Now let’s move on to a current snapshot heading into Winter 2023-2024.

Current Snapshot and Historical Analog Analysis

Before we get into this, most of you know that I work closely with Bobby Martrich of EPAWA Weather Consulting. Bobby and I have been back-to-back weather forecasting for the Mid-Atlantic US for over 10 years now. We both overlap a little but also have our specialty regions of PA and NJ. I am going to one: hat tip to Bobby for his recent long-range analysis upstream in the Pacific Ocean and two: cite him for some of the information I’m about to describe. I highly recommend following both Weather NJ and EPAWA for some of the most comprehensive weather information in the Mid-Atlantic US. If you live in PA, EPAWA is your best source of information. Bobby handles the Appalachian influence very well in his forecast services.

So basically, are in an El Nino phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. The ENSO cycle has everything to do with the Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies (SSTA) of the equatorial pacific region between South America and Indonesia. If the SSTA are above average, we’re in an El Nino. If they are below average, then we’re in a La Nina. This winter looks like a stronger El Nino however the current SSTA are distributing across the entire ENSO region (moving into region 3/3.4). We saw this in the winters of 02-03 and 09-10 which both featured big snow. What we do not have is an El Nino where the warmest SSTA stay huddled up in region 1+2 closer to South America. That we saw in 97-98 and 2015-2016. 97-98 was a blowtorch winter. 2015-2016 was a mild winter overall but featured a historical snowstorm in January 2016. So even in the warmer 1+2 El Nino scenario, a snowstorm could still happen. But it is much more likely to happen when warmer SSTA are scattered across the entire Nino region. Basically, the Pacific is the largest body of water on Earth and therefore, it’s SSTA fluctuation has impacts that reach around the world, especially just downstream for NJ and the US.

What is different about this season’s El Nino? We are also seeing some warmer temperature anomalies in the N/W Pacific Ocean. Normally this area is colder and reciprocates a warmer ENSO region—allowing a warmer temperate zone to settle in over NJ/E US for the winter. We don’t think we’re going to see that this winter which means there should be more snow opportunities than a typical El Nino winter. What’s weird now is both the NW Pacific and equatorial Pacific regions are warmer overall. This is not exactly telling us what will happen, but rather what probably won’t happen which is a snowless blowtorch winter. Where the exact warmer SSTA set up has tremendous influence on US weather. The warmest SSTA of the equatorial Pacific ultimately determines where the best tropical forcing is (the strongest lifting). As we know in the N hemisphere, lifting means cyclonic (counterclockwise) flow. So when you have the best forcing in the ENSO region 3.4 (rather than region 1+2), you then have a tendency for a ridge to build in the W US and a reciprocating trough to form for the E US. This is how the current ENSO status/snapshot could actually produce a winter filled with snow. Once again, this is not like the blowtorch winters of 97-98 and 2015-2016. This is more like 09-10 and 02-03. Once again, a hat tip to Bobby Martich of EPAWA for most of this analysis. He did the hard work and I agree with the results of his historical analog analysis with regard to our current strong El Nino ENSO state with the warmest SSTA now distributing westward away from region 1+2.  

What I will be looking for

My thoughts are that the Pacific setup is actually not that bad for snowstorm development. I think we’re going to see a few nice ridges this winter over the E Pacific/W US longitudes (the EPO and PNA regions). It will all come down to how deep the reciprocating troughs can spill down for the E US. And that will be determined by how much blocking we have and the state of how loose the polar vortex is. This winter, I will be looking for a ridge over the W US, a trough over the E US, and a surface low coming in as either a Miller-A or Miller-B. That’s what will most likely produce a snowstorm worthy of recognition in the KABOOM archives.

My Best Winter Prediction

You want my best guess at what will happen this winter? Okay. That’s fair. Some of you seem to think that I can actually speak to and control the jet stream/snowflakes. I promise you that is not true. My best perceived trait is simply breaking down the physics into understandable language for the non-technical viewer. There’s nothing I know that any other meteorologist doesn’t. While I may have a confirmation bias of accuracy, I promise you, my main intention is that you understand what is possible and how to best prepare for it with safety precautions and real-time endurance/coping. I do love snow but I won’t wish it into happening if it looks improbable. If it’s going to rain, I’ll tell you to let it wash over you. I won’t go down with the ship on a 4-7 day snow prediction. That’s for the stubborn meteorologists to do. Weather changes constantly and it’s my duty to tell you how it is changing in real-time and what it means for the rest of a weather event. However, if it does snow big, you will see KABOOM language used by a very excited snow lover here. But safety first, snow admiration second. With that said, most of NJ has not seen a large snowstorm since 2018. Extreme NNJ (mainly elevations) saw a few larger events and also SENJ (Jan 2022). But overall, NJ is due. So in a non-scientific gut feel, we are so due for a snowy winter and I think we should buckle up, especially Christmas time through President’s Day Weekend.

In English: Again, this is not a winter forecast or outlook. It’s a primer, current snapshot, and a few suggestions on what to look for based on historical setups like this snapshot. We’re in an El Nino setup that should peak in the December-January timeframe and then decline through next spring into next summer. But this El Nino setup does not indicate a snowless blowtorch warm winter (like 97-98 or 2015-2016). It’s actually leaning towards a better El Nino setup for E US/NE US snow like 02-03 and 09-10. A hat tip to Bobby Martrich of EPAWA for such analysis. Our current and near-future winter setup might actually benefit areas SE of 95 over areas NW of 95, especially if the sub-tropical jet and offshore coastal storm route remains as active as recent times. But we’ll have to see. The above discussion outlines the way it can possibly snow and what to look for. I recommend you read through so that you can follow along more easily when the specific weather event becomes probable and forecastable in the future. I can tell you now that snowfall looks grim for the first half of December. Not really seeing anything outside of maybe lake effect streamers. But I do expect the second half of December to pick up snow interest-wise as the equatorial Pacific continues to distribute its warmest surface waters across all El Nino regions (like in 2002-2003 and 2009-2010), not just close to South America (like 97-98 and 12015-2016). I have no scientific backing at this time to support my gut feel which is “we are due.” Here’s to another NJ winter folks. Be safe! JC

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Jonathan Carr
By November 30, 2023 17:00