This harsh winter: the improbable occurs

It’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City as I write this, with an overnight low that will get close to zero (Fahrenheit). It has been cold in the northeast US for weeks, and is forecast to stay cold for weeks more. Boston is being choked by snow from multiple major storms – two of which have been in their all-time historical top ten for snow accumulation – and stands a good chance to break the all-time record for most snow in a season.

I wrote a post back in October about the coming winter. The main point of the post was that seasonal forecasts in general, and for the northeast in particular, have large uncertainty and not a huge amount of skill.

I concluded by saying that

“Without looking at any weather data or models, one can say pretty confidently that it is very unlikely that this winter will be as cold as last winter was in the eastern US. Last winter was very extreme by historical standards, so a winter that extreme is – basically by definition – improbable in *any* year. No information currently available (including the state of El Nino), or that will be available ahead of time, is strong enough to change that. Again this is a probabilistic statement: it’s not impossible that this winter will be as cold or colder than last, it’s just very unlikely.”

I haven’t seen the statistics to prove it yet, but I think it may well turn out that for the northeast at least, this winter in fact is going to turn out more severe than last. In terms of snow in much of New England, it certainly is already, and I think with the current cold snap – projected to last another two weeks in virtually the whole eastern US, as per NOAA’s latest 8-14 day forecast (shown below) – we are headed to beat last year in terms of cold as well.

I stand by my claim that this was improbable, as far as the scientific information available in October would have told us. But the improbable seems to be occurring.


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