Mean Old Man Winter steps down from the North early: Will he stick around?

The US set nearly 1,000 record cold temps over the Thanksgiving break, suggesting to some that the Old Farmer’s Almanac may be right about its prediction of a long, bitter winter.

Mark Sterkel/Odessa American/AP
Workers with Duncan Tree Service remove a tree that fell Sunday on Jack Sullivan's Cutlass parked in the driveway of his Odessa, Texas home. Wintry weather with freezing rain, sleet and snow swept through much of West Texas over the weekend, causing power outages and many tree limbs to break under the weight of the ice.

Scientists and skeptics continue to quibble over global warming, but meanwhile Americans and Europeans are bracing for what could be a mean ol’ winter, given early signs – including 1,000 low temp records set in the US over Thanksgiving break – that Winter 2014 could be a real teeth-chatterer.

The trend has been most noticeable here in the South, where an already below-average summer – including a stretch of record low max temperatures in the Deep South in late July and August – has given way to snow in Texas, ice in Atlanta, and mittens in Jacksonville, Fla.

Americans aren’t alone in wondering about what’s ahead, given that record lows have largely kept pace with record highs this year. Across the pond, British tabloids, citing a government report, warned Saturday of a “three-month killer freeze” in a series of headlines that the Met climate office quickly criticized as hyperbolic.

True, Seattle saw a record high this week, but most of the rest of the country huffed, puffed, and shivered through Thanksgiving, Gray Thursday and Black Friday, reasserting predictions from several quarters that the coming winter, still three weeks away, could be a doozy.

(More immediately the weekend will warm up in many parts of the country, thanks to a bit of cloud cover and moisture being pulled in behind the big cold front, but another cold, clear Arctic blast is expected to drape across the land late next week.)

Not all weather forecasters are in agreement that a particularly bitter winter is looming, however. Some, including the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, suggested last month that early winter record colds will give way to warmer-than-normal temperatures especially across the southern half of the country starting in January and into the spring.

But the good folks at the prediction center reeled back some of that earlier prognosis this week, suggesting that “this year’s outlook has proven to be quite challenging … We’re not seeing strong climate signals and patterns that often give us clues as to what the season will bring.”

The new report also addresses the global warming implications, noting that, “While you might expect trends to always be up in a warming climate, the reality is that temperature trends are often different for different regions during different seasons.”

Finally, the center concedes that “atmospheric patterns can change from week to week and have the potential to deliver cold, snowy weather throughout the season.”

The Old Farmer’s Almanac hasn’t been so wishy-washy, noting colloquially that “global warming will soon be taking a vacation.”

“This winter is shaping up to be a rough one,” Janice Stillman, editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, says on the almanac’s website. “Sweaters and snow shovels should be unpacked early and kept close by throughout the season. The good news is that the extra precipitation—which will fall as rain or snow depending where you are—will help with any drought issues left over from the summer.”

More broadly, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration reports that global mean temperatures were up slightly this year (across the globe, August 2013 tied August 2003 for the sixth-warmest on record). But a UN report earlier this year acknowledged that air temperatures bucked predictions by pretty much flattening after record-hot 1998 even as carbon emissions, which are mostly blamed for warming, continued to rise thanks largely to growing Asian economies.

Some scientists have blamed the surprising non-rise in temperatures over the past decade on a “very plausible scenario” where all that extra heat is being stored a half mile below the surface of the Pacific, from where it could suddenly be released.

NOAA reported last week that at least “sea surface temperatures across the central Pacific have not been consistently warm or cool since Spring 2012, and we expect this to continue at least through next spring.”

Others suggest the connection between the cold weather and broader climate trends may be more substantial and direct, especially given that the US saw one of the slowest hurricane years on record, with a mere 13 tropical storms, and two Atlantic hurricanes, neither of them major.

“Global warming caused the very cool US summer, and the very cold US winter,” writes warming skeptic and blogger Stephen Goddard, presumably with his tongue in his cheek. “It makes everything more extreme.”

All we know out here in the heartland is that it feels awful cold for this time of year. And it is.

This past week, the US recorded 969 low max temps, 203 record lows, and 205 record snowfalls (many in north Texas), according to reports from HAMweather, a conglomeration of personal weather stations. There were 17 record highs reported in the same time period.

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