Detroit's 2016-17 winter outlook: colder and snowier weather in store

As a meteorologist in Michigan, it’s the question I get asked the most: “What’s this winter look like”?  Since they pay me to answer questions like that, let’s get to it.

The key takeaway is this: I am expecting a colder than normal winter with near normal snowfall.  Last year’s winter was a real treat for those that needed a break from the polar vortex cold of 2014 and 2015: we were the 6th warmest winter of all time with only 65% of the normal snowfall.  It was… pretty easy.  This year will not be like that:

December Outlook: Colder temps; few rounds of snow

January Outlook: Colder temps; frequent snow

February Outlook: Colder temps; frequent snow

So what changed? The biggest thing is El Nino. Last year’s El Nino was the strongest in 20 years and kept us warm and slightly drier.  Anyone remember Christmas Eve?  It was almost 60 that day! 

Since then El Nino has slowly been breaking down and heading into this year we have transitioned to a weak La Nina.

So I did a little research, back to the last time we had a strong El Nino followed by a weak La Nina was Dec. 1995 – Feb. 1996.  During that stretch we saw temps that were colder than normal (and extremely cold in December!) and less than average snowfall (only 14.4” all winter long compared to the normal 30.5”). I don’t think this winter will be exactly like that one.

The Winter of 1995-96 had a lot of blocking patterns that kept the cold around, but not the snow. This is, in part, due to the number of sunspots; when the sunspot number is low, we get blocking patterns. This year, the number is not low, meaning we won’t have the blocking patterns, meaning winter systems will be coming all season long.

 

JET STREAM IMPLICATIONS

The second biggest factor will be this year’s jet stream, which locks cold air north and warm air south. Last year the jet stream was consistently north… meaning we had that warm southern air.

This year the jet stream looks to be weaker, which will allow the “dam to break” and the cold air will rush to us.

 

LAKE EFFECT SNOW

There is one thing that I’m watching really closely this year too: lake effect snow.  Lake effect snow is heaviest when the lake water is warm and the air is cold… and that’s exactly how we are setting up. Coming off of the warmest summer ever, buoys are still picking up water temps of 55-60 degrees.  If a blast of cold air were to swing across the water, well, we are looking at some significant snow totals that could make it across the state.

It’s exactly the reason I think Northern and Central Michigan are in store for above average snowfall this year. (For context purposes, Traverse City typically gets 81” of snow per year… I think they’ll get more than that in 2017.)

 

GET READY

What does this all mean? For the entire winter, Metro Detroit could see between 35 to 45 inches of snow. The closer you get to Lake the Michigan and farther north, the more you'll see. Up in Cadillac and on into the Upper Peninsula, 150 inches of snow isn't out of the question. That's good news for skiing and sledding! 

So what will you really see? Let's be honest, that's an impossible question to answer - but I did my best estimate. Keep in mind, THIS IS ONLY AN ESTIMATE and it's possible - not expected:

So there you go!  Plan on winter being a lot like, well, winter. Bundle up and have the snow shovel and thrower ready - because winter is coming. And don’t forget to download the free Fox 2 Weather Authority App to track storms all winter long!

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