Science

Why Is Winter Still Happening?

I decided to ask some TV meteorologists about this winter, because they’re recognized at the supermarket and people vent to them.

Snow covers magnolia flowers at the Capitol during a snowstorm in Washington on Wednesday.
Snow covers magnolia flowers at the Capitol during a snowstorm in Washington on Wednesday.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

It’s spring. According to the calendar, we’ve served our time. Winter should be over. And yet, it’s not.

Because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is elliptical, winter (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) is actually shorter than summer! Winter is 90 days long; summer is 94.

And yet this winter, for many, seems like an eternity. Imagine the plight of those near Boston.

There’s actually a way to assess how bad winter has been—it’s called the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index (AWWSI). It quantifies exactly how bad winter has been based on metrics, because humans are bad at that kind of objective analysis.

“If you looked at the chart, it was a mild winter until the 25th of January,” says Steve Hilberg, a senior meteorologist and climatologist at the Midwest Regional Climate Center and one of the authors of the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index.

New England’s winter started easily enough. Their AWSSI (pronounced “Aussie”) numbers for this season are about average. But that will change Wednesday. Six inches to nearly 1 foot of wet, gloppy, slippery snow will fall, pushing them beyond average. But that’s just one place on the map—assessing how bad your own personal winter hell has been requires some location specificity.

Here’s what the index turns up as of Wednesday:

Midwestern Regional Climate Center index for Wednesday.
Midwestern Regional Climate Center

I decided to ask some TV meteorologists about this winter, not because they’re smarter or more accurate than other meteorologists, but because they’re recognized at the supermarket and people vent to them. How has this one been, on that metric?

“Winter in Michigan seems to go on forever, especially this year,” said Nick Russo, who forecasts at NBC25 in Flint.* He’s watched 77 inches of snow fall, which is 6 feet 5 inches, which is Steph Curry with two snowy inches to spare.

But you don’t need NBA levels of snow to be bothered. The South Carolina low country got about a half foot of snow in one storm, unusual by itself and even more so when followed by weather cold enough to keep it from melting for nearly a week. Josh Marthers from WCBD in Charleston says, “People here are sick of winter even if the vast majority of it has been well above normal.”

Meanwhile, California is about to witness a rainstorm of historic proportions. Like the Northeast, this was an uneventful winter until it wasn’t. “We’re flooding under a Pineapple Express and begging for the rain to stop. We just can’t win,” says Laina Rusk at KERO in Bakersfield.*

Where it’s not raining, it’s snowing. Parts of the Sierras are forecast to get 2–3 feet of snow, with local accumulations to 5 feet. Chains are recommended for driving.

Much of California lives in an uneasy balance with nature. As long as it’s sunny, we’re good. Too little moisture and we catch fire. Too much rain and hillsides slide … then later catch fire. Before this week is over, you will see pictures of beautiful and expensive homes near Santa Barbara totally buried under mud.

Of course, not everyone’s complaining about the bad weather. Some folks are annoyed it’s too good! Molly McCollum from KTUL in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has gotten “a lot of complaints about the lack of winter in Oklahoma. We’ve seen little to no snow for most the area.” If only there was a way to just average out the entire country.

Dave Koeller from KRBK, Springfield, Missouri, has a similar story with “two or three weeks of winter in the Missouri Ozarks. The rest was pretty darn mild. More than 10 inches below our seasonal snowfall average.”

So was this winter worse than the normal winter? As always with the weather, it depends on where you were. But the easiest takeaway is the simplest one—no matter what’s happening where, we’ll always find a way to complain about it.

P.S. Boston has had April snow four of the last seven years.

Correction, March 22, 2018: This article originally misspelled the first name of Laina Rusk and misidentified Nick Russo as being in Lansing when he is based in Flint.