My interest in the natural world converged many years ago with a scientific curiosity to understand how it all worked. Further fascinated by how man and the natural world impact each other, I came to study Geography in college.
Geography is often called the most interdisciplinary of all the natural sciences and encompasses many diverse academic subjects. Two of them are meteorology, the science of the weather and its influences, and climatology, the study of long-term weather patterns and tendencies.
Climatology has always been of particular interest to me and when unusual weather happens, I am fascinated to find out why. This winter has been one of those unusual times.
One of the best places to learn more about the climatological state of affairs, especially here in Pennsylvania, is Weather World. The quarter hour program on public television each weekday evening is produced by Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and helps make the sometimes complicated science a bit more understandable for the amateur meteorologist.
Earlier this week they discussed the unusually warm winter that we have experienced, not just here in Pennsylvania, but throughout most of the United States. It actually started in November, as eleven days surpassed sixty degrees on my own home thermometer. Both New England and the Ohio River Valley were more than five degrees above normal for the month.
December was even more extreme. A region centered in Illinois averaged more than six degrees warmer than usual and the Upper Midwest was eight degrees above average.
January was warmer than average across the entire country, except for two slender strips on the Pacific Coast. The Upper Midwest and Northern Plains again were more than eight degrees above the long-term norm.
Here in Blair County, those brutally cold spells that can bring weeks of below freezing temperatures and correspondingly frigid nights have been conspicuous by their absence. We have had only three single digit nights all winter and no sub-zero nights.
While some big snows could still fall, the clock is running out for those extreme cold spells. As the sun inches higher into the February sky, single digit days or sub-zero nights are very unlikely. In these parts, they are almost unheard of after mid-February. This may be one of those winters that we do not tally a single below zero night.
So why has this winter been so unusual? As many readers (especially those that watch Weather World or Joe Murgo) know, it is the upper winds that drive our weather. When the upper winds and weather systems come from the Arctic or high latitudes of Canada, we would logically expect cold weather. When flow is from the south, air masses are warmer.
So far this winter, the upper winds have blown more frequently from west to east or southwest to northeast. They have come much less frequently from the north or northwest. The coldest temperatures in North America (sometimes called the Meteorological North Pole) have stayed locked up in the northern latitudes.
How long will this unusual warmth last? Though we are getting better at taking educated guesses about long term trends, answering a question like that is still a difficult task.
Weather World (weatherworld.psu.edu) and WTAJ TV’s (wearecentralpa.com/weather) websites are excellent local resources for more on understanding what makes the weather what it is.