Aside from other comments New Englanders make about the climate, it's safe to say that the North Country's winter weather is as fickle as Liberace in a clothing store. No matter how clear the sky appears at dawn, a three-inch snow could drop by noon only to be washed away in a drenching evening rain. Since experts confess that even the newest computers lack sufficient data to predict what the skies will bring, it's no wonder that the United States Weather Service uses words like "outlook," "percent chance," and "possible" much more frequently than they venture to "predict" what's in store.
With scientific experts at the Weather Service wisely hedging their long-range forecasting bets, people seeking sure-fire answers to what the winter of 1981-1982 holds in store turn to anyone who speaks loudly, or who has lived through 20 or more years of New Hampshire's versatile climate. Unfortunately, there aren't too many of these voices around.
While other regions of the country abound in sages who will predict meteorological events well into the 21st century, New England's weather sleuths are rare. To the casual observer, this disparity may seem odd, yet with a closer look, an explanation reveals itself. It isn't that natives of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont lack the intellectual capacity of their counterparts elsewhere; on the contrary, their general tight-lipped attitude about the weather indicates just the opposite. As the proverb says, "He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool".
The sole glaring exception to this trend is The Old Farmer's Almanac, a book that has boldly dared to write out annual forecasts - inch by inch, and degree by degree - detailing what will happen in the coming year. Even though The Almanac deserves credit for its remarkable record of 190 years of straight forward forecasting, from time to time its predictions don't match what happens. Last year is a case in point. The winter of 1980-1981 was as embarrassing to the forecaster as it was disappointing to the skiers.
The Almanac's prediction called for winter to be "mild overall" with "considerable snow north" in the New England region. The opposite took place. "Fairly regular snowfalls should provide good winter sports conditions until the end of January," The Almanac noted, though nature proved otherwise. Everyone is entitled to a mistake or two, and The Almanac has often hit the nail on the head, but what happened in the Mount Washington Valley last winter deserves a closer look.
In fairness to The almanac, no one could have guessed the extremes in the winter of 1980-1981. During the course of this winter, new records were set for coldness, dryness and lack of snow-cover in the Valley. The single most telling statistic - total snowfall - paints the clearest picture. A grand total of 51 inches fell. Compared with the 1979-1980 figure of 52.2 inches, this doesn't seem very significant, but in an area which averages more that 100 inches each winter, 51 inches isn't a healthy toll. Consider that a one-day storm in November 1943 dumped 55 inches on the town of Berlin to the north.
Local weather observer Briggs Bunker - a man who has taken meteorological reading since 1973 - recalled that last November kicked off with a bang. "We received 11.8 inches, 4 more that the norm," Briggs said, "which led many people to believe we'd have a good snow winter." Subsequent events, however, showed just how misleading early snows can be.
December managed to set a number of forgettable records with totals surpassing the tables Briggs and the late Joe Dodge had kept for 23 consecutive years. For one, it marked the driest December since 1957 with a mere 1.19 inches of precipitation. More importantly, it saw the mean temperature dip to 17.1 degrees, fully 5.2 degrees shy of the median; a similar drop in the norm was recorded by the Mount Washington Observatory. To emphasize the severity of this drop, Briggs noted that the US Weather Service considers a two degree deviation from average temperatures a "marked departure." Among other things, this meant a lot of frozen pipes.
In a cold snap lasting from the 20th through the 28th, the thermometer climbed above the freezing mark only once and Christmas was more brittle than white. "It was an exceptional day," Briggs said. "The high temperature was -6; it was the only day I've ever recorded when the temperature didn't rise above zero." While Briggs' thermometer registered a low of -19 that night, others in the Valley reported reading down to -30.
As frigid as it was, December is equally capable of delivering near Florida-like conditions. Eight years ago, for example, almost a dozen inches of precipitation fell in the Valley - the most of any December within the last 23 years. If this moisture had been all snow, it would have left more than 10 feet of white gold in its wake; instead, warm temperatures coupled with semi-frozen ground produced heavy rains and flooding. "It was the first year I did the weather," Briggs noted, "and it seems as if I was measuring and recording precipitation every day of the month - sometimes two or three times a day."
Still, the winter of '80-'81 was in a class by itself. Following frozen December, January offered scant relief, with an average monthly temperature falling a full 4.6 degrees off the pace. Despite the chilly mean of 12.5 degrees, skiers hoped that abundant snows would ease the chill. They hoped in vain.
January's snows amounted to only 6.4 inches last season, a hefty 16.9 inches below the expected par. This month established two records, one for the least snowfall in 23 years, and another for the third coldest January; 1976 with a mean reading of 12.4 degrees and 1971, with a mean of 10.9, took second and first places respectively.
Relief for overworked furnaces arrived in February when temperature suddenly jumped to 7.9 degrees above the norm, although relief for frustrated skiers never did arrive. The monthly average temperature of 28.3 degrees proved a mixed blessing as it converted most of February's ample precipitation - 9.64 inches from snow to rain. Soaked by water and eroded by the mild weather, the snow cover on the ground measured only 2.1 inches for the month, a level 18.7 inches short of average. Sadly enough, if all the precipitation had been snow, more than eight feet would have fallen.
Keeping pace with the rest of last season, March brought warm temperatures which mixed with less than an inch of precipitation. Snowfall for the month dropped 11.7 inches from normal, while the depth of cover on the ground nearly went off the scale: only .2 inches blanketed the Valley during a month which usually has a cover of almost two feet. Spring arrived too early.
Bad as the winter was from a skier's point of view, there are several reasons to expect better things from the winter of 1981-1982. Aside from the welcomed news that Attitash has joined with Wildcat and Cranmore as a ski area which offers man-made snow, nature appears to have changed her tune. Just as lightning never strikes the same spot twice, a repeat of last winter's extremes runs contrary to logic. December snowstorms have already covered the North Country in deep powder, and signs point to more of the same.
Some observers note an apparent change in the jet stream patterns, which haven't worked to New England's favor during the past two winters. The jet stream - a narrow band of high velocity winds rushing through the upper atmosphere - acts much like a giant hand, pushing the steering currents closer to earth. Thus far this winter, the jet stream has helped to direct these snow-producing systems to the North Country, rather than toward Canada or the mid-Atlantic states as in the past winter. Even though this single change isn't a guarantee of snow, it helps.
"The strong upper air patterns in the jet stream appear to be in a favorable location now," Briggs said. "If they stay where they are now, conditions are quite favorable for a normal snowfall."
Joe McCall from the US Weather Service in Concord agrees that New Hampshire should be in for a return to normalcy. As he reported, the 90-day outlook for the region calls for normal precipitation coupled with slightly above-normal temperatures. Skiers, as well as homeowners with chugging furnaces, should breathe a sigh of relief. In addition, the Weather Service's short-term outlook (a forecast which is constantly being updated) for late December and early January is equally pro-skier.
"Temperatures and precipitation should both be normal," Joe said. "This means an average maximum temperature of 30 to 31 degrees, with lows of 10 to 11 degrees, with precipitation of about a quarter inch. That translates into three inches of snow if conditions are right."
If the jet stream remains in a favorable position during the coming months, the chances of a "Nor'easter" - the monster snowstorm - also increase. For this to happen, a track of cold air sliding down the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains collides with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico forming one low pressure center. Then while the steering air currents (winds at 18,000 feet elevation) push this system toward New England, a second low pressure system must form off the coast of the Carolinas or Maryland. This system then moves up the Atlantic coast, (turning counter-clockwise) toward the mountains, pulling warm, wet air form the ocean as it goes. Under ideal conditions, when these two systems meet, snow falls like sand in the Sahara. The Almanac predicts that one is due at the beginning of February.
Oddly enough, The Almanac's forecast for this winter closely matches what the Weather Service has set down. For New England, The Almanac says that "Winter will be average" and that "snowfall will be heavier than normal in the mountains." Still, no one should count on everything they read in print, especially stories about New England's weather.