WASHINGTON — Snow has gone missing in action for much of the U.S. the last couple months. But it's not just snow. It's practically the season that's gone AWOL.
"What winter?" asked Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. For the Lower 48, January was the third-least snowy on record, according to the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University. Records for the amount of ground covered by snow go back to 1967.
Last year more than half the nation was covered in snow as a Groundhog Day blizzard barreled across the country, killing 36 people and causing $1.8 billion in damage. This year, less than a fifth of the country outside of Alaska has snow on the ground. Bismarck, N.D., has had one-fifth its normal snow, Boston a third. Midland Texas has had more snow this season than Minneapolis or Chicago.
Forget snow, for much of the country there's not even a nip in the air. On Tuesday, the last day in January, all but a handful of states had temperatures in the 50s or higher. In Washington, DC, where temperatures flirted with the 70s, some cherry trees are already budding —weeks early.
"I am disgusted that golfers are golfing on my cross-country ski course," said New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson, director of the Global Snow Lab.
But there is lots of snow and dangerous cold — it's just elsewhere in the world. Valdez, Alaska, has had 328 inches of snow this season — 10 feet above average — and the state is frigid, with Yukon hitting a record 66 below zero over the weekend.
Nearly 80 people have died from a vicious cold snap in Europe, and much of Asia has been blanketed with snow. This January has been the ninth snowiest since 1966 for Europe and Asia, though for the entire northern hemisphere, it's been about average for snow this season.
The weather is so cold that some areas of the Black Sea have frozen near the Romanian coastline, and rare snowfalls have occurred on islands in the Adriatic Sea in Croatia. Ukraine alone has reported 43 fatalities, many of the victims homeless people found dead on streets.
The reason is changes in Arctic winds that are redirecting snow and cold. Instead of dipping down low, the jet stream winds that normally bring cold and snow south got trapped up north. It's called the Arctic Oscillation. Think of it as a cousin to the famous El Nino.
When the Arctic Oscillation is in a positive phase, the winds spin fast in the Arctic keeping the cold north. But in the past few days, the Arctic Oscillation turned negative, though not in its normal way, Halpert said. The cold jet stream dipped in Europe and Asia, but is still bottled up over North America.
That's because another weather phenomena, called the North Atlantic Oscillation is playing oddball by staying positive and keeping the cold away from the rest of North America. About 90 percent of the time, the North Atlantic and Arctic oscillations are in synch, Halpert said. But not this time, so much of the United States is escaping the winter's worst.
"We've just had a remarkable run of unusual winters in the past six years globally," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I have to say that winter hasn't really hit yet. Certainly not where I live."
The Global Snow Lab: http://bit.ly/wFuAtV
National Weather Service map showing snow cover: http://t.co/0HIAPU1j
Weather service map showing warm temperatures around the nation: http://t.co/rpNNt7Sp