Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
It’s a well-known fact of human interaction that if one brings up the weather, a conversation will almost always ensue. Since it is the one element of life we all share equally, it is the perfect icebreaker.
This winter, especially so far, has been the inspiration for a lot of conversations. There have been famous individual storms in history (The Blizzard of ’93, for example) but the bad weather that has rolled across most of the U.S. this time around has been steady and relentless. Literally thousands of low temperature and snowfall records had been set even before the New Year. In the southeast, the entire citrus crop is at risk from temperatures that have plummeted as far as the mid-twenties, sometimes for several days in a row. Colorado Springs, Colorado announced in December that they would no longer be plowing suburbs because they had already run through almost the entire snow removal budget. In the Northern Plains, incessant snow, high winds, and temperatures going as low as 30 below zero Fahrenheit has resulted in a winter that’s beginning to sound like one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.
Weather is not climate. Weather happens over a period of days, while climate is measured across hundreds of thousands of years, so to say that this harsh season is proof that the planet is cooling is premature. We did have a very comfortable summer, at times even distinctly chilly. Weather is also cyclical. Here in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, we’ve enjoyed at least 5 relatively mild winters in a row. Normally, Johnstown receives around 55 inches of snow while Somerset, 30 miles south and 500 feet further up, averages around 100 inches per season, “season” being the operative word. Winter snowfall is measured from December 21 through March 21. But those totals don’t count the snow that, around here, can fall as early as mid-October and as late as mid-May. So even “official” totals can be a bit misleading. The National Weather Service warned us early on that this year we would be enjoying a “normal” winter for the mountains.
I moved here in 2004 and was almost immediately accosted by people who related winter survival stories of apocalyptic proportions. They talked breathlessly about highways closed for weeks at a time, blocked by snowdrifts 10, 20, even 30 feet high; winds powerful enough to blow tractor-trailer rigs off the road. It was not a pretty picture.
Now, I tend to discount these kind of stories, taking them down a magnitude or two, although we were concerned enough to purchase our first-ever all-wheel-drive SUV. And for the first 5 winters, our skepticism was rewarded. There were some impressive snow storms, but things were never bad enough to keep us from going where we needed to go.
But this year, even we have had to admit that things are…different.
Our first frost occurred within spitting distance of Labor Day. The first accumulating snow fell in early October. We had both a white Thanksgiving, and Christmas. And the lastest bulletin, it started snowing on December 27th and didn’t stop until January 10th. Then over Friday and Saturday, February 5th and 6th, a massive storm dumped as much as 30 inches on the area. And nature's not done yet. A look at the satellite imagery shows three more storms on their way. As of Sunday, I measured 47 inches in our front yard. But that total may be low, since the snow that’s fallen has been the light, fluffy variety that tends to tamp itself down once on the ground.
I’ve tried to be very Pennsylvanian about this, shrugging off the bad weather as “normal.” But even the locals, they who once filled my head with those winter horror stories, are beginning to use words like “bad” and “unprecedented.”
It’s impossible to say whether this is an anomaly, or the beginning of a bad cycle. Only time can answer that question. But one thing is for certain.
We sure have a lot to talk about this year.