Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Yin and Yang of the Winter of 2014-2015

Yin and yang. Warm and cold. Buried and barren. Winners and losers.

There are a number of ways to describe this past winter, but my pick for a description would be something along the the lines of "sudden and weird".

The winter of 2013-2014  was a severe winter in many parts of the country, especially in the Northern Plains, Great Lakes, Midwest, and parts of the Northeast. Winter weather settled in during December and it was pretty consistently cold and snowy in the aforementioned areas until mid-March. Winter was relentless.

This year, however, Old Man Winter toyed with us. A typical first 10 days of November gave way to record cold and snow . On November 17 more than half of the lower 48 states had snow on the ground and was the highest level for the season until January 4.  Then came December, which was warmer than average across the entire country. The northern and central Rockies, some Great Lake snow belts, and western Maine were the only areas to see average to above average snowfall.

January's temperature departure pattern had hints of the warm west, cold east pattern that ultimately defined the winter. Snow was above normal in the northern Rockies, the southern Rockies, higher elevations of Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas through the first three weeks of the month. Other than the dramatically cold and snowy weather for a couple of weeks in November, winter failed to materialize for much of the country.

Mean 500 millibar pattern
for January 24-February 28, 2015
Everything changed the last week of January. A building upper level ridge in the western U.S. was complemented by a deepening trough over the central and eastern U.S., a pattern that would remain more or less the same through February. For much of the country east of the Mississippi River winter began that week, and it came in at full speed with no let up. The start of that week saw much warmer than normal weather extended into the northern Plains under a building upper ridge, while to the east the stage was being set for the first of what would be several major snowstorms of the season to hit the Northeast.

For the six-week period ending March 7 snowfall was much above normal in a wide band from the southern Rockies eastward to the Carolinas, north to the southern Great Lakes and northern New England. Late February and early March storms brought one to two feet of snow to Kentucky, and damaging ice storms from Tennessee east to the Carolinas and south into the northern Gulf States.

February was an incredibly cold month for the country east of the Rockies, with temperatures averaging 10 to 18 degrees below normal across the northeastern third of the country. There were 23 states that recorded a top-ten coldest February. Much warmer and drier than normal weather continued over the western U.S. with record warmth in six states.

For the period beginning December 1 snow cover across the U.S. reached it's season low on December 12 at 17.5 percent. (It had dropped to 16 percent on November 24 after the mid-November peak of 50.4 percent). It rose to 53 percent on January 4, then fluctuated up and down before dropping to 21 percent in early February. The storms the last three weeks of February led to a peak snow cover of 63.4 percent on March 1.

Chart showing percent of U.S. (lower 48 states) covered by snow each day since November 1.

Today, after several days of mild weather and some rain, snow cover has plunged to 16.1 percent. Much of that snow cover is in the Northeast which is still 98 percent snow covered with an average depth of 21 inches. It will be a few weeks before the last vestiges of the Sudden Winter of 2014-2015  disappear from the landscape there.

Snow depth and extent on March 1, 2015 (left) and March 11, 2015 (right).
Source: NOAA National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center


  1. It's hard to talk about February without using an entire season's worth of superlatives, though many in the urban northeast would use the epithet subset. :-)

    The two most amazing things:

    1) we challenged or broke records from 1934, I never expected to see that.

    2) it was almost identical to 1934.

    I have a bit of an analysis at

  2. Here in Wisconsin, it was cold, but I kept waiting for the snow to come. Don't quote me but I'm pretty sure we never got more than a 4-5" snow in southern WI and it only took a few days of warm temps to reveal the lawn again. And now, just like that, it is 55 degrees outside! There truly is never a dull moment if you are fascinated with the weather. :)

    1. Kelly, a quick look at seasonal snowfall totals looks like there was 15-30 inches across southern Wisconsin, and all of those amounts were well below normal. Madison has had a bit over 30 inches, and that's about a foot below normal.