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Where’s The Snow? We Ask A Burlington Meteorologist

Liam Connors
Holiday lawn ornaments, like these in Charlotte, look out of place without the traditional December blanket of snow.

It's an odd feeling when you step out the front door in December and feel more like shedding your coat than adding another layer.

The unseasonably warm weather has thrown off the usual rhythm of the season. Normally it’s safe to put out bird feeders by Dec. 1, but the Department of Fish and Wildlife sent out an advisory Monday suggesting that people wait. With all this warm weather, male black bears have yet to go into hibernation. Fish and Wildlife says to wait to put out feeders until there's a good 6 inches of snow cover.

But with temperatures in the 40s and 50s, it doesn’t feel very likely.

Spring skiing in December

Despite the warm weather, ski resorts around the state are trying their best to get by. Many have had to limit the trails that are open and a few have decided to stay completely closed.

An unscientific sampling of skiers and riders at Sugarbush Resort on Saturday said it was worth it to come out for a day, even with the weirdly warm conditions.

“I was telling people, it's a great day for the second week in April,” said Will Sipsey of Lincoln.

“Yes, I would like more snow, but I'll take spring skiing in December,” said Sarah Wiegel, who was up from Boston. “[If] that's what there is, I'll take it.”

The second warmest fall on record

Paul Sisson, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Burlington, says this has been the second warmest fall on record for the region.

“We started off … the cool season with a really warm, cool season. We were the warmest on record for September and second warmest in November,” Sisson told Vermont Editionon Monday. “It was quite a warm fall and we've just continued that into December. We’re right now the third warmest December to date … the rest of the month looks warm, too, so will probably continue. And we’re less than a degree off the warmest [December].”

Normally, there would be an average of about a foot of snow on the ground in Burlington by this point in the year. Thus far, the city's had less than a quarter of an inch.

"It was quite a warm fall and we've just continued that into December. We're right now the third warmest December to date." - Paul Sisson, forecaster at the National Weather Service in Burlington

“Last year we had about 30 inches by this time, so we're quite a bit down,” says Sisson. “There's only been a couple of other years that we've actually had less than an inch [of snow] at this time a year.”

Sisson says Burlington is cutting it close to another snow-related record.

“The latest we've had a one inch snowfall is Dec. 23. So we're closing in on that all-time record,” Sisson says.

El Niño, or climate change?

Sisson says it is slightly more likely that El Niño, a band of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that affects weather patterns, is bringing warmer weather to the region, as it has the last few cycles.

“We're seeing some of [those] warmer-than-normal conditions right now,” said Sisson. “This is one of the stronger ones, where the temperatures are more above normal than usual, so it has a big weather effect, especially in the western part of the U.S.,” Sisson says.

But Sisson says no two El Niños are the same: “We've had cold and snowy, we've had warm and wet. There's been really no trend that you can put your finger on for the Northeast.”

But it's hard not to notice a pattern in overall temperatures. Sisson says the average temperature in Burlington has gone up "about three degrees on average over the past 100 years."

“May, June, July, August, September, and October of 2015 were all the warmest global temperatures on record since [about] the 1880s,” Sisson says. “We've been on this warming trend globally, and it looks like this year probably will become the warmest on record, globally.”

But Sisson says to be careful of making connections between a single weather event and global weather changes.

“When we talk about climate, we're talking about a 30-year average. A lot of different kinds of weather occurs in 30 years,” said Sisson. “It's averaging out all the extremes to find the long term trend.”

Snow for the holidays? 

The warm weather this season doesn’t mean hard winters are gone for good, Sisson says. But it's not looking like this winter will deliver the punch that last one did.

“The way the outlook is ... in the near-term [we're going to see] a little cold snap coming in this weekend. Maybe some snow in the mountains, maybe even getting a little down in the valleys,” said Sisson. “And then it looks like it warms back up again next week heading towards Christmas Day.”

Long term, Sisson says this winter will likely average out to be on the warmer side: We will still get snow, but less that we have in years past.   

Patti is an integral part of VPR's news effort and part of the team that created Vermont Edition. As executive producer, Patti supervises the team that puts Vermont Edition on the air every day, working with producers to select and research show ideas, select guests and develop the sound and tone of the program.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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