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What's with these snowstorms? Natural patterns, plus randomness.

It’s a winter to remember – one that is likely to trigger a host of studies that try to tease out details of the factors contributing to the season’s snowstorms.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / February 12, 2010

Children sled down a hill in the Canebreak subdivison near Hattiesburg, Miss., on Friday after a winter storm brought heavy snowfall to the area.

Matt Bush/The Hattiesburg American/AP

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If you’re hunting for an explanation for this winter’s record-setting behavior across the United States, look no farther than the coins in your pocket.

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Total up the range of usual suspects – El Niño, the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Arctic Oscillation, and other influential, natural swings in seasonal weather and climate patterns – and at most, they represent no more than half of the drivers behind the headline-generating conditions around the country this winter.

The other half?

“There’s a lot of stuff going on in the atmosphere that has nothing to do with these. It’s the equivalent of a random coin flip,” says Ron Stouffer, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. “Weather is chaotic.”

Linkages between natural modes of change in the atmosphere and weather events “aren’t as simple as people like to make them out to be,” he says.

Simple or complicated, it’s a winter to remember – one that is likely to trigger a host of studies that try to tease out details of the factors contributing to the season’s storms.

Snowball fights in Pensacola

Even as the mid-Atlantic states continued to dig out from their major back-to-back snowstorms, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Florida Panhandle saw white. Dallas is coping with more than 12 inches of snow, while snowball fights broke out in Pensacola, Fla., at least until temperatures warmed and snow became rain.

While at least half the drivers for this winter’s weather can be summed up as pure chaos, well-known patterns have played their roles as well.

Start with El Niño, a periodic shift in location of a vast deep pool of warm water that migrates from the western Pacific and piles up against the west coast of South America. As the warm water travels, so do the bands of convective thunderstorms that the warm water spawns. As these storms and their strong updrafts migrate, the change alters atmospheric circulation patterns globally.

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