The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 14, 2012

Be prepared: Weather pattern makes North Alabama winter predictions difficult

By Adam Smith

— Though winter doesn’t begin until Dec. 22, the National Weather Service has deemed Nov. 12-16 as Winter Weather Awareness Week.

The observance comes nearly a month after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 2012 Winter Outlook for the U.S. The outlook predicts North Alabama will have an equal chance of having temperatures and precipitation above or below normal from December through February.

“It’s really a three-sided coin,” said Jennifer Schuler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville.

What makes it more difficult to predict wintry weather is a wavering El Niño weather pattern, which was expected to have already developed.

“This is one of the most challenging outlooks we’ve produced in recent years because El Niño decided not to show up as expected,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “In fact, it stalled out last month, leaving neutral conditions in place in the tropical Pacific.”

If the current model holds true, the lower three-fourths of the state could have a wetter-than-normal winter. The Tennessee Valley’s outlook, however, remains uncertain.

Despite having a mild winter last year, North Alabama has experienced significant winter weather over the past few years and was provided a rare white Christmas in 2010. Other significant events included the winter storm of March 2009 and a historic snowfall event in January 2011.

Officials with the National Weather Service and the Limestone County Emergency Management Agency want residents to be ready as the winter season approaches. Temperatures have already dipped below freezing this week, meaning water pipes can be vulnerable.

“People need to be prepared and pay attention to weather bulletins,” said Daphne Ellison, communications officer with the Limestone EMA. “It’s hard for the weather service to predict snow because those conditions have to be right, but you need to take precautions if it does happen.”

Some of those bulletins to be aware of include:

• Winter Storm Watch: At least a 50-50 chance that warning criteria (less than 2 inches of sleet/snow and /or ice accumulations of one-fourth of an inch or greater) will be met in the next 12 to 24 hours;

• Winter Weather Advisory: One to two inches of snow and/or sleet in less than 12 hours;

• Freezing Rain Advisory: Ice accumulations up to one-fourth of an inch;

• Wind Chill Advisory: Wind chill readings between –10 degrees Fahrenheit and 0F;

• Winter Storm Warning: Greater than 2 inches of snow and/or sleet in 12 hours or greater than 4 inches of snow in 24 hours;

• Ice accumulations of one-fourth inch or greater;

• Blizzard Warning: Greater than 2 inches of snow and/or sleet in 12 hours or greater than 4 inches of snow in 24 hours AND sustained winds of 35 mph or greater and considering blowing and drifting snow reducing visibilities to one-fourth of a mile or less for three or more hours;

• Wind Chill Warning: Wind chill readings at or below -10F;

• Freeze Warning: Temperatures at or below 32F for three or more consecutive hours during a climatologically significant time of the year (first widespread freeze of the fall or a freeze after the growing season has started in spring); and

• Frost Advisory: Temperatures between 33F and 36F are forecast. (Widespread frost in the fall or after the growing season has begun in spring.)

Some of those precautions include keeping emergency supplies not only at home, but also in a personal vehicle. The NWS recommends preparing a travel safety kit containing batteries, blankets, a first-aid kit, pocket knife, tow rope, shovel, sand/cat litter, ice scraper, water, nonperishable food, road maps/GPS equipment, a mobile phone charger and an AM/FM battery-operated radio.

Ellison said residents should keep those same items on hand in the home. She also recommended maintaining emergency heat sources, including kerosene heaters. She added that residents should also keep a close check on elderly relatives and neighbors during winter months.