If the skies fail to yield any frozen precipitation in the next six to eight weeks, the greater Charlotte region could experience its first-ever winter without any snow.
This is a stark contrast to last year’s abnormally snowy season, which left children celebrating multiple school closings and parents fretting dangerous and icy road conditions.
According to the National Weather Service, the region has had at least a trace of snow every year since records began in 1878, producing an average of 5.7 inches of snowfall for the past 134 years.
Though the Charlotte region, which includes Gaston County, has always enjoyed modest amounts of snow, the chance of a snowless winter would make 2011-2012 a landmark season in metrological history. Since 2001, an average of 4.8 inches of snow has fallen in the region, peaking at the unusually high total of 14.5 inches during the winter of 2003-2004.
So far this winter, not even a trace amount has found its way to the Charlotte area, and it may be cause for celebration among consumers and taxpayers alike.
Last year’s record snowfall caught budget planners and commuters by surprise, ballooning the state snow removal budget and causing constant headaches for residents dependent upon the roads for business and work.
According to the N.C. Department of Transportation, nearly $55.2 million was spent on snow removal last year, more than $25 million over-budget, while a study conducted by the American Highway Users Alliance estimated that close to $200 million of economic activity evaporated during each day of impassable roads.
Many are quick to sound the global-warming alarm, but weather analysts and meteorologists are more cautious in formally blaming complicated weather patterns on a singular cause. They attribute the chance of a snowless winter to cooler ocean temperatures and a shifting jet stream, isolating cold air to the north and leaving the Southeast warmer than usual.
The likely culprit is La Niña, the oceanic cyclical phenomenon which cools the temperature of the Pacific Ocean 3 to 5 degrees lower than average. This is opposed to the much more feared El Niño, which warms the oceans and is known to cause more extreme floods and droughts throughout the year.
“It’s really a measure of many different, separate factors,” said Dr. Matt Eastin, associate professor of Atmospheric Science at UNC Charlotte.
“There’s the North Atlantic Oscillation, causing changes in atmospheric pressure and bringing a lot of warmth to the Southeast,” Eastin said. “Add to that La Niña, which is supposed to bring much drier and warmer air, and we’ve had steady high temperatures for the winter meaning absolutely no snow.”
As for global warming, Eastin acknowledges its influence, but focuses more on local recurring patterns than any long-term climatic concerns.
“There is a lot of cold air, but the northward shift in the jet stream has kept it far from the south,” said Eastin. Instead, the cold, ridging pattern has reserved the lower temperatures and snow for the north.”
If the Charlotte region is to go without snow this season, it will be yet another year of record-breaking events.
Climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were quick to label 2011 as the year of “climate extremes” in their recently-released annual report on weather patterns, noting the high frequency of droughts, floods and record snowfalls.
As for 2012, it remains to be seen how long residents will be able to maneuver ice-free roads.
In any case, the only complaints are likely to come from schoolchildren, always anxious to find a legitimate reason to avoid school.
Published on Gaston Gazette.