Dreaming of a white Christmas?
Dream on: The record-shattering warm spell shows no signs of easing its grip on the Berkshires and much of the nation east of the Rockies over the next two weeks. Most likely, according to the National Weather Service, is a brown or even slightly green holiday landscape.
Despite a chill-down over the next several days back to normal temperatures, a return to off-the-charts mild weather is the long-range, high-confidence prediction released by government forecasters on Tuesday through the end of the month.
A 103-year-old record for the latest first measurable snowfall in the region may well be broken on Christmas Eve, said Kevin Lipton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y.. The second latest date for first snow was Dec. 17, 1998, he added.
"It's a safe bet that we'll break that No. 2 record on Thursday," Lipton said. But there's a possibility of some snow showers on Friday or Saturday that could produce a slight accumulation, though any measurable snow would melt quickly. Prospects for a white Christmas — defined as an inch or more of snow on the ground — are bleak, he said.
With astronomical winter officially starting next Monday (at 11:49 p.m.), climate trackers pointed out that in an average season, 22 inches of snow would have fallen in Berkshire County in November and December (and occasionally in October).
An unusually strong El Niño phenomenon (very warm waters in the tropical waters of the Pacific) is altering weather patterns dramatically, with frequent snowstorms in the West and a jet stream keeping Arctic air bottled up in northern Canada.
At Pittsfield Municipal Airport, temperatures have been above normal every day this month, often drastically. Two high-temperature records were broken — 55 last Friday and 59 late Monday evening.
Tuesday's 60 degree reading, at 1 a.m., tied the record for the date set in 2008. The average mid-December temperature range is 20 to 34, based on airport records that date back to 1938.
"It's amazing how persistent this warm pattern has been," Lipton said. The polar vortex, the center of frigid air, is smaller than usual and has been bottled up much farther north than normal, he added, confined to the Arctic circle, especially interior Alaska and northwest Canada.
Based on current trends, this could be the warmest December ever recorded in the Berkshires and New York's Capital District. Albany's observations date back to 1820, and most of the top 10 records were set in the 1800s, Lipton noted. The fourth mildest was in 1923, and the seventh warmest was in 2006.
In the Berkshires, heating requirements are 20 percent below average so far. Combined with price declines for oil, gas and electricity, many residents seem more than willing to let the good times roll.
But winter sports aficionados are dismayed.
At Jiminy Peak Ski Resort, President Tyler Fairbank said he's hoping day and night operations will resume next Wednesday, thanks to a "window" this weekend that looks cold enough for extensive snowmaking, allowing 10 or 11 trails to open.
"We plan to have as much of our terrain open as possible," he commented. "We're no strangers to a bumpy start to winter. This is on par with the worst we've seen such as 1997-98, 2006-2007 and 2011-12."
"The weather has been so weird that we're opening parts of our Aerial Adventure Park for guests," Fairbank said, noting that about 3,000 visitors are expected in the Hancock resort area during the Christmas to New Year's holiday period.
"I'm enjoying saving on heating and not fighting snow and ice on the way to work," said Mary Ellen Deming, director of administrative services at Town Hall in Lenox. "This is working very well for me."
A resident of Ashley Falls in Sheffield, Deming noted that "last winter was long enough, I wouldn't mind skipping a winter."
There have been other mild early winter weather seasons in the Berkshires — in December 2006, only a half inch of snow was measured at the Pittsfield airport for the entire month, while a paltry 0.8 inches fell in December 1999. More recently, the same month in 2011 saw just two inches.
So far this season, a stray flurry produced a trace of snow on Nov. 14. Measurable snow is defined as at least 0.1 inches.
The continuing, still strengthening El Niño pattern could keep Arctic air out of the Northeast and other areas east of the Rockies well into next month, according to Paul Pastelok, AccuWeather's chief long-range meteorologist
"El Niño is contributing to a strong belt of westerly winds across Canada that will help keep the polar vortex locked up near the Arctic Circle," Pastelok said. The end result: Cold and snowy days are likely to be infrequent, at least for the next four weeks.
Lipton pointed out that El Niño is only partially responsible for the mild, rainy season in western New England. "Any connection between climate change and El Niño is still up in the air," he said. "It's too early to establish a correlation, the jury's still out on that."
"When El Niño starts to weaken, we do not always get an immediate change in the weather pattern," Pastelok said. "We believe that once the current El Niño peaks, there may be enough of a lag to carry the warmth through much of the winter."
But he cautioned that for late winter, a major snowstorm or two cannot be ruled out.
Anecdotal reports include budding forsythia bushes, Lipton noted, especially in the Hudson Valley, where some tulips are peeking out of the ground and peepers have been heard after recent rainfalls, just like in April.
"It's kind of alarming," he said.
The snows of December ...
Here are snowfall totals for the month, in inches, as measured at Pittsfield Municipal Airport for the past 16 years:
2015: 0.0 (through Dec. 15)