Thursday, December 29, 2011

Arctic Outbreak?

We all knew it was probably only a matter of time before the weather finally turned more winter like. We got a taste of winter yesterday with some lake effect snow, strong winds, and temperatures in the 20s. While we have been warm lately, 500 miles to the north has been frigid. The chill yesterday and, to some extent, today, is just a small piece of that cold pool.

A much bigger piece will be breaking off next week. It will easily be the coldest air so far this season, with highs Tuesday and probably Wednesday staying in the teens. There will be wind. There will be snow. But will this be an 'arctic outbreak'?

There is no set definition for an arctic outbreak, so the use of the term is up to the discretion of the forecaster. It seems to me, however, that 'arctic outbreak' should be a term reserved for record setting or dangerous cold. It is a strong term that grabs people's attention. I do not think it should be overused.

Does the combination of high temperatures in the teens, gusty winds and lake effect snow meet these qualifications?  I am honestly on the fence.

On the one hand, it seems to me that highs in the teens are not all that impressive, given our climatology and the time of the year. Some lake effect snow and wind? That is just normal winter weather here.

Yet, on the other hand, this has not been a typical winter. We have only one high temperature under 30ยบ (on the 24th...the high yesterday was actually 40, albeit that was at midnight). Snow has been scarce to non-existent. Being suddenly thrust into mid-winter weather may catch some off guard and create dangerous conditions.

In the end though, I think I would hesitate to use the words 'arctic outbreak' in my forecasts for the coming cold snap. I believe that the public should be aware that the pattern is changing and, at least for a few days, winter will be here in full.

But I do not want to sensationalize things and blow them out of proportion. This event, after all, is still nearly a week away. I've seen many extreme temperature events forecast this far out, only to have the models gradually and consistently modify temperatures back towards more normal temperatures.

I want to hear what you think though. Join the discussion and post what your definition of an arctic outbreak would be on Facebook by clicking here.