COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The next couple of weekends will featureii peak fall color to Ohio, which means wintry chill and the first snowflakes are not too far in the future.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) recently released its annual winter outlook for December-February 2023-24, and early indications point to a relatively mild winter across the northern half of the country. No areas are forecasted to experience colder than average temperatures for a prolonged period.

Precipitation is expected to be mostly drier than normal from the northern Rockies to the Great Lakes, including much of the Ohio Valley region, during the winter months. Wetter-than-average conditions will likely extend from California to the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic area. A higher likelihood of heavier precipitation would alleviate moderate to severe drought conditions that have lingered from the southern Plains to the Gulf Coast states most of the year.

The latest outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center reflects a moderate-to-strong El Niño climate pattern that is expected to continue into next spring, based on data analyses by federal forecasters.

The climate cycle known as El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) switches back and forth from warmer to cooler sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, sometimes separated by a year or two of neutral or minimal temperature departures from the long-term average. A complete ENSO cycle occurs every three to seven years.

The pattern transitioned from La Niña in the spring (cooler than normal water in the eastern tropical Pacific), which had persisted through three consecutive winter seasons in North America, a rarity for longevity. Moderate-to-strong La Niña winters favor above-normal temperatures in the Ohio Valley, but colder, periodically snowy conditions from the northern Plains to New England.

The appearance of El Niño, which took shape in June, could be “historically strong,” according to the Climate Prediction Center. Strong El Niño events occurred in 2015-16 and 1997-98, which led to very mild winters in the Midwest and East with light snowfall.

Not all El Niño’s are alike, depending on the location of the warmest surface water, which affects the position of the jet stream and overall storm track. Large-scale winter weather patterns are complex, of course, and include other factors such as snow cover in northern Canada and northeastern Asia, and an occasional southward shift of the polar vortex in association with Atlantic air-pressure configurations.

Although these factors are unclear early in the season, there is the possibility of at least a temporary flip to colder and snowier weather in the Midwest and East, despite a predominate El Niño.

Six of the past eight winters in central Ohio have featured above-normal temperatures, so the NOAA/Climate Prediction Center winter forecast would indicate a familiar trend, notwithstanding the memorably frigid blast just before Christmas 2022 that brought a low temperature in Columbus of minus-7 degrees and wind chill of minus-34 early on Dec. 23.

Snowfall has been on the light side in the past eight winters (October-May) in Columbus. The average seasonal snowfall is 28.2 inches.

  • 2015-16 17.1 inches
  • 2016-17 9.3 inches
  • 2017-18 29.8 inches
  • 2018-19 27.4 inches
  • 2019-20 11.7 inches
  • 2020-21 27.8 inches
  • 2021-22 14.5 inches
  • 2022-23 12.5 inches

Normally, the Columbus area sees its first snowflakes in early November and first accumulating snow in early December. In recent years, the first snow flurries flew as early as Oct. 4, 2014, and the latest flakes did not show up until Nov. 29, 2011.

A historical data look-back, beginning with the earliest official Columbus weather records that commenced in the winter of 1879-79 through the late 1980s, reveals an average date for the first snowflakes of Nov. 1, which is nearly a week earlier than during the past decade (2010-11 to 2019-20).

Similarly, the average first measurable snow from the late 19th century through the late 20th century in Columbus, which was centered on Nov. 17, has shifted to more than a week later, coming around Nov. 28.

The development of El Niño — a pool of abnormally warm water that sloshes eastward across the equatorial Pacific — typically strengthens the subtropical jet stream across the southern U.S., favoring an active storm track and a northward displacement of the polar jet stream, which inhibits cold air outbreaks across much of the country.

However, milder winters are notable for an increased chance for heavy lake-effect snowfalls because warmer water temperatures provide more available moisture in transient cold air surges, coupled with less restrictive ice cover. This primarily impacts the snowbelt of northeastern Ohio and areas downwind of the Great Lakes that are subject to heavy bursts of wet snow.

An El Niño winter does not preclude a heavy snowstorm along the East Coast or northern Appalachians. A massive snowfall occurred in the Mid-Atlantic states on Jan. 22-24, 2016, fed by warmer Atlantic sea surface temperatures and marginally cold continental air.

So if you enjoy winter sports and snowy landscapes, there is always hope for a few good snowfalls.