Drifting back

May 1, 2015

Snow season expected to feel more normal in 2012-13

There are those who are concerned about invited guests, and others who worry about an uninvited one.

Weather forecasting can ease or mess with the minds of individuals on either end. Brides want their day to be perfect, while public works officials just want to be ready for the day—or night—when snow will test the limits of fleets. Both turn to meteorology for insight. 

“We’re a bride’s best friend, but we are also a snow plower’s best friend,” Peter Geiger, editor for the 194-year-old Farmers’ Almanac, told Roads & Bridges. “I’ve had about six calls so far for people who want to know how many storms there will be this winter for a certain place because they are putting together a quote [for salt].”

As for the official 2013 forecast, the country could not be more divided. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, those to the east of the Mississippi River will experience an average winter, while those in the West will feel an off-kilter season much like the one that dominated the 2011 season across the entire U.S.

“The western part of the country is going to be drier than normal or milder than normal, and in the eastern part is where you will get the colder temperatures and see more snow,” said Geiger. 

Last season dry and mild dominated the landscape, leaving public works crews tending to other responsibilities. According to Sandi Duncan, managing editor for the Farmers’ Almanac, the North Atlantic Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation were in a positive flow, pushing the jet stream north. In contrast, the winters of 2009 and 2010 experienced a negative flow from both oscillations. 

“When [the jet stream is up] it doesn’t let the cold air come down like it normally does, so this warm air was stuck and actually pulled up from the southeast U.S. to the eastern U.S.,” she told Roads & Bridges. “It is very rare, and it threw all of us off.”

The Great Lakes and New England regions could be the hardest hit in 2012-13, with the first snows coming in early November. The Farmers’ Almanac predicts the heaviest snows will come at the start of 2013, with the Great Lakes expected to get at least 8 in. of snow in late January and the Northeast getting hit with a major storm in mid-February. March carries heavy precipitation for both regions. The North Central Region (Mont., N.D., S.D., Wyo., Colo., Neb., Mo., Minn., Iowa) could lead the country in snowstorm events during 2012-13. The first is predicted to hit around Thanksgiving, with a second coming the first week of December. The biggest could drop over the Dakotas and Kansas in early February.

The formula of the Farmers’ Almanac—which was developed by David Young in the early 1800s and uses factors like sun spot activities, lunar phases and planet positions—has been about “75-85% accurate” over the decades. 

“If you look at our weather map from last year you would see that we said it would be very mild in all the south, mild in the west, mild in the middle part of the country except in the northern tier, where it would be very cold and snowy,” said Geiger. 

Some attribute last season’s freaky behavior to La Niña hanging on a little longer. Forecasters believe El Niño will be moving in this winter, leading to an eventual shift back to normal.

Problem no longer parked

The Farmers’ Almanac is predicting that much of Iowa will experience wild temperature swings during the cold months, but William Stowe thinks it will be closer to an average winter, which produces about 38 in. of snow.

“We have a difficult time looking at the long-term forecasts and guessing where we shake out,” the assistant city manager and director of public works/Metro Wastewater Reclamation Authority in the city of Des Moines, told
Roads & Bridges.

A new parking ban on residential streets should give plow operators an easier time clearing the streets, as will the addition of seven wing plows. Wing plows, according to Stowe, reduce the number of passes by 33%. 

Efficiency helps when you are dealing with a budget tied to a dwindling gas tax. The city of Des Moines operates under a $3 million tab, but more and more dollars are being consumed by the rising cost of diesel. Stowe said that number is approaching $750,000. 

The mild conditions of 2011-12 will help ease the funding concerns this winter, as 6,000 tons of salt were carried over to fill the annual 15,000-ton demand. 

“We are certainly constrained by our operating budget,” said Stowe. “We just think we could use it more efficiently with better technologies, like the wing plow itself.”

Get in and go 

The public works department in Manchester, N.H., is in a better place these days, following the completion of a $7 million complex last year. When a snow event does hit the area, trucks are preloaded, allowing operators to take to the streets immediately. In the past, equipment was stored outside and had to be cleaned off before they could be loaded with material—which required waiting in a line. 

Manchester has dedicated a significant chunk of its budget to improving the public works department over the last four or five years. In addition to the new facility, $2-3 million have been spent annually on new equipment. Public Works Director Kevin Sheppard does not expect to receive any money for new purchases this season, but believes more funding will be available for 2013-14. Manchester dedicates about $1.2 million annually to fighting snow.

“We have maintained that budget because we can’t reduce it. We need that money,” he told Roads & Bridges. “What we try to budget is for what we call 10 to 11 average storms. A storm will cost us anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000.”

Last winter was anything but average. Manchester usually takes on 60 in. of snow a year, but only 40 in. fell during 2011-12. Sheppard carries around 10,000 to 11,000 tons of salt each year, and the piles will be housed in a new storage facility, which could allow the city to save unused salt for the next plowing season. The new complex also came with a brine tank and brine-mixing equipment, and Sheppard said this season will mark the first attempt at prewetting roadways prior to the storm.

“I was actually looking over our history of where our winters have been, and I think we are due for average weather,” said Sheppard. “We will see what it is, but I am sure we will be able to handle whatever Mother Nature throws at us.” WM

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