Predicting the weather is hard. At best, meteorologists can give reliable deterministic — or specific — weather forecasts up to nine days in advance. Anything beyond that is a roll of the dice.
But what about next hurricane season? How bad will this winter be? Those are tough questions, but it’s not too early to take a stab at them. After all, they’re probabilistic, or odds-based, forecasts. We can’t give specific answers, but rather likelihoods or ranges. There are lots of big questions about what’s in store for this year.
While our crystal ball has limitations, there are a few projections we can make. Let’s run through five super-early prognostications.
1. Winter could appear in early to mid-January
— Ben Noll (@BenNollWeather) December 25, 2023
All I want for Christmas is... a Sudden Stratospheric Warming?
This unique phenomenon is looking increasingly likely to disturb the polar vortex in January, increasing the chance for the displacement of cold, Arctic air into the mid-latitudes 🥶
For now, we wait and watch... pic.twitter.com/ttqBLj0GTg
While the Plains have been hit by repeated snowstorms (and, more recently, a damaging ice storm in North Dakota), the East Coast has largely escaped the throes of winter. But that may soon change.
Weather models hint at a sudden stratospheric warming, or SSW, in the next few weeks. That’s basically a sudden warm-up of the atmosphere high above the North Pole. The gathering of warm air displaces frigid air, shunting it down to the mid-latitudes.
There are further signs of an uptick in wintry weather come mid-January due to something called the Arctic oscillation. It’s essentially a metric that asks, “How bottled up is the cold air?” If the AO is positive, the cold air is banked at high latitudes, but when it swings negative, the floodgates open and can release cold air over North America, spurring storminess.
Weather models hint that the AO will dip negative in about two weeks, perhaps signaling a greater proclivity for wintry weather.
2. Tornado season could be busy in the South
Right now, there’s a strong El Niño. That’s a chain-reaction process in the atmosphere, and peer-reviewed research shows it can bring active severe-weather seasons in the Deep South and Florida.
El Niño begins as a warming of water temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific. That heats air from below, causing it to rise and spawning an area of low pressure, which then splits the jet stream. One branch surges north toward British Columbia, while the other branch swings across the southern United States.
That addition of wind energy in the upper atmosphere induces shear, or a change of wind speed and/or direction with height. That encourages any thunderstorms to rotate. With Gulf of Mexico water temperatures anomalously warm — which is favorable for thunderstorms to begin with — it’s likely that more rotating supercells will develop this winter and early spring across the Deep South, bringing more tornadoes.
Incidentally, El Niño has been linked with a reduction in tornado incidence over the Plains for a variety of other factors.
3. Hurricane season could be busy, too
Get ready. The ninth consecutive average or above-average hurricane season is already looming. We’re just over five months away from the official start on June 1, and already the Atlantic hurricane season is looking like a doozy.
Remember the El Niño we have in place? By peak hurricane season (August, September and October), it’s expected to revert to a La Niña. That’s the opposite of El Niño, and it primes the Atlantic to crank out storms.
Converse to El Niño, La Niña features a cooling of water temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific, which induces subsidence, or the sinking of air. What goes up must go down (and vice versa), so broad ascent, or rising motion, becomes dominant in the Atlantic. That makes it easier for storms to form.
Moreover, a reduction in disruptive wind shear will make it easier for storms to sustain themselves. Too much shear, which is characteristic of El Niño, can knock a storm off-kilter, spelling its demise. La Niña reduces wind shear, meaning more storms are likely. (That’s especially true with a warmer Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic, which right now are running above average.)
4. It could be a banner year for the northern lights
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, seldom dip into the contiguous United States. But when they do, they dazzle skywatchers far and wide with shimmering curtains of light that dance across the skies.
The northern (and southern) lights are caused by geomagnetic storms, or disturbances that send pulses of energy through Earth’s geomagnetic shield. (It’s like our natural sunscreen). Those bursts of energy originate on the sun in the form of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. They’re like massive eruptions that send solar material, high-intensity energetic particles and magnetism into space. When they’re directed toward Earth, we can be impacted.
CMEs are most commonly launched by sunspots, or bruise-like discolorations and cool spots on the surface of the sun. They’re most numerous every 11 years during the peak of the “solar cycle,” when horizontal bands of interfering magnetism chaotically battle it out near the sun’s equator. The peak of Solar Cycle 25 is slated for sometime between January and October of 2024, so the odds of a significant episode of the northern lights are high.
5. The eclipse will be a showstopper
April 8, 2024, will be a memorable day for millions of Americans. The moon will block the sun for up to 4½ minutes in a path from Mexico to Maine.
We can’t predict the weather four months out, but we can confidently say that along that path there will be a sudden daytime nightfall, a drop in temperatures and an eerie gloom. Assuming the clouds don’t hang thick, a once-in-a-lifetime viewing of the “solar corona,” or sun’s atmosphere, is possible once the moon blocks the main solar disk. It will last only seconds to minutes, but it will resemble a portal to another universe.
As an expert in meteorology and atmospheric science, I can provide a comprehensive analysis of the concepts discussed in the article. My depth of knowledge in weather forecasting, climate patterns, and atmospheric phenomena allows me to interpret and explain the key points mentioned.
Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW): The article mentions the possibility of a Sudden Stratospheric Warming event in early to mid-January, leading to the disruption of the polar vortex and a potential influx of cold, Arctic air into mid-latitudes. SSW is a real meteorological phenomenon where rapid warming occurs in the stratosphere, influencing the circulation patterns in the atmosphere. This can indeed impact weather conditions, and meteorologists use advanced models to track and predict such events.
Arctic Oscillation (AO): The discussion around the Arctic Oscillation explains its role in determining the distribution of cold air. When the AO is positive, cold air is confined to high latitudes, but a negative AO can bring cold air into lower latitudes, potentially causing wintry weather. Meteorologists rely on AO forecasts and observations to anticipate changes in weather patterns.
El Niño and Tornado Season: The article highlights the current presence of El Niño and its potential impact on tornado activity in the Deep South and Florida. El Niño is a well-established climate phenomenon characterized by warming sea surface temperatures in the Pacific. This warming can influence atmospheric circulation patterns, leading to increased tornado activity in certain regions.
Hurricane Season and La Niña: The article discusses the likelihood of an active hurricane season, attributing it to the transition from El Niño to La Niña. La Niña, characterized by cooler sea surface temperatures, tends to create conditions conducive to hurricane formation. The reduction in wind shear further enhances the likelihood of sustained storms. Meteorologists use historical data, satellite observations, and climate models to make such predictions.
Solar Cycle and Northern Lights: The reference to the solar cycle and its peak in 2024 aligns with the science behind geomagnetic storms and the occurrence of the northern lights. The 11-year solar cycle influences the frequency and intensity of geomagnetic storms, which, when directed towards Earth, can lead to the stunning display of the aurora borealis. Scientists track sunspots and solar activity to forecast the likelihood of geomagnetic storms.
Total Solar Eclipse: The article touches on the upcoming total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. While weather predictions for specific dates are challenging, the mention of a sudden daytime nightfall, temperature drop, and potential viewing of the solar corona aligns with the anticipated effects of a total solar eclipse. Meteorologists will closely monitor weather conditions for optimal viewing opportunities along the eclipse path.
In conclusion, the article combines meteorological expertise and data-driven predictions to offer insights into various weather-related events, ranging from winter weather patterns to tornadoes, hurricanes, northern lights, and a total solar eclipse. These projections are based on the understanding of complex atmospheric dynamics and the utilization of advanced forecasting tools and models.