While most Wyomingites enjoy December filled with 50-degree days, a much lower-than-average snowpack and ski hills throughout the state begging for a blizzard are all signs of a lousy winter season ahead, right?
While it may seem we’re in for a weak winter, Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day says not so fast. Think of the season as a football game — and it’s not even halftime yet.
“We're in the second quarter of a four-quarter game,” he said. “Your team is behind, but you still have a chance to win.”
Despite a surprisingly white Christmas in northwest Wyoming, there’s been a noticeable lack of snow and code throughout much of Wyoming this month. The latest report from the Wyoming State Climate Office shows below-average snowpacks in every basin in the Cowboy State.
Day doesn’t deny that December’s been dry.
“I think snowpacks have certainly underperformed from what we were expecting so far, and it is a concern,” he said.
But concerning isn’t the same as surprising. Based on his analysis of current and historical climate trends, Wyoming’s weather is following the same pattern it always has.
“The three driest months of the year are December, January and February,” he said. “We don't usually have really wet systems just because of how the weather patterns work in the winter season at these latitudes.”
Based on this history, Day said using December as a barometer for the entire winter season probably won’t provide an accurate outlook.
“You can't look at December and base the rest of your winter season off of it,” he said. “I can go back historically and find a lot of warm Decembers that were followed by a lot of snow and cold for the rest of the winter. It's hard to put too much weight on a December when it comes to the overall winter pattern.”
Day doesn’t have to go far back in Wyoming’s weather history for a relevant example.
“A lot of people have been saying how warm and dry this December is, but last December was similar,” he said. “Last year, we really didn't have much snowpack, and we really didn't have a lot of winter, but remember how harsh last winter was? Most of that started in January.”
OK, so December is historically destined to be dry. What’s in store for the New Year in Wyoming?
Day anticipates a snowier start for 2024, but he still doesn’t see it becoming a windfall for snowfall.
“We could say average snow in January, but average snow in January is nothing exciting,” he said. “January's not known for lots of inches of snow. You can have frequent storms that aren't big in terms of accumulations. Snowy Januarys don't happen very often.”
That said, weather systems now brewing elsewhere on the planet will bring “a large-scale transition” to Wyoming in the next few weeks, Day said. He’s confident that the transition will bring noticeably colder temperatures, meaning better chances for snow.
That outlook’s better, but it’s not the winter wonderland many expect or hope for.
“I'm expecting normal snowfall in January across the state,” he said. “But that doesn't necessarily mean a lot of snow.”
The Extreme Opposite
Wyoming doesn’t do anything halfway, and its weather is no exception. Day reminds Wyomingites that while December, January and February are the driest times of the year, they are immediately followed by the wettest months.
“The wettest months of the year go from March to June,” he said. It’s “the biggest bang for the buck with Wyoming's precipitation and what makes a difference. March and April are a whole lot more important than December and January.”
Even if January and February are disappointingly dry, the wet season tends to make up for lost time and snowpack. But that raises another prescient concern: Will Wyoming get its entire winter all at once, like last winter?
Day agrees it can be a legitimate concern, considering how devastating the 2022-2023 season was for Wyoming’s wildlife and livestock. He doesn’t think a winter that severe will return for a consecutive season, but a severe spell of winter in spring is still possible.
“It's a different pattern than last year,” he said. “Last year, we were transitioning between La Niña and El Niño. Now we're in an El Niño, which tends to make it a little warmer overall. That may keep the severity down compared to last winter. I don't see us rebounding to the severe levels of last winter, but we shouldn't rest on our laurels either.”
Don’t Panic (Yet)
There are legitimate reasons for Wyomingites to feel hot and cold on the current trajectory of the winter season. Based on historical data and confirmed weather patterns, Day believes everyone can chill out a little, even if the temperatures aren’t.
“In terms of what the season looks like, the low snowpack totals are somewhat concerning,” he said. “But that's not accounting for when Wyoming is going to get the bulk of its moisture, and that's when it's always gotten the bulk of its moisture.”
However, there is a time when dry weather should lead to legitimate concerns about the dreaded d-word, “drought.” Day isn’t concerned about this manifesting in 2024, but it is a reliable seasonal sign of what the weather will and won’t do.
“When we have dry March, April and May, that's when we have trouble,” he said. “That's when we hit our next drought cycle. You can go through these dry winter months at the beginning and still be fine. When you have a wet December and January but a dry March, April, and May, you're not fine and can be in trouble.”
In the meantime, don’t despair over a disappointingly dry December. The game’s still in the first half, and the best (or worst) of winter is yet to come.
Author’s Note: The Cleveland Browns beat the New York Jets on Thursday night, clinching their spot in the NFL playoffs. A Super Bowl win for the Browns would ensure that Hell had frozen over, which would presumably have an impact on Wyoming’s winter weather.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.