RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Once again Thanksgiving is upon us and that means it is time for my 35th annual winter outlook for Central Virginia.

As always, trying to make a prediction for long rain weather is always a challenge, and trying to lay it out for the next 3 months can only be talked about in general terms, not specific terms. So while I can’t tell you if it is going to snow on Jan. 18 or Feb. 20, hopefully, I can give you an overall look at what the winter is going to be like.

Right off the bat, I will give you a little tease. If you are a winter weather lover, you will have a very good chance of liking this winter.

First, let’s start with the sun. It is the ultimate driver of all of our weather since it the source of energy for land, ocean, atmosphere system that creates our weather. One of the most important things to remember is that the energy from the sun is not constant, but variable. It is only a little change here and there, but that is enough to help create chaos in the weather.

One of the biggest signals for this is the sunspot cycle. Studied since the 1700s, we know that they run in a cycle of about 11 years from max to min. Currently we near the end of the cycle that started in late 2008 and should be coming to an end in the next 18 months. However, as you see from the chart below, there have been 2 minimums in sunspots since the start of this century. I am sure that you remember the winter of 2009-2010. Snowpocalypse and Snowmaggedon affecting Virginia and the Mid Atlantic area! And we are right in the same ballpark to start off this season. A good sign if you like wintry weather.

By the way, from about 1940 to 1970, we were in a period of lower than usual solar energy output, which led to a 30-year period of snowier winters in the East. And there are some scientists who think that this pattern could be making a return.

Next up, let’s consider El Nino/La Nina—that is the warmer/cooler than normal ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. El Nino usually results in wetter winters over the area, while La Nina winter can bring us colder weather. But remember wetter is not always warmer—2015 to 2016 was one of the stronger El Ninos on record and we had the monster January snowstorm.

We are in a weak to moderate El Nino right now are from the chart above (the RED line is the average) are expected to remain in a weak to moderate El Nino pattern. That would imply more moisture over us, but also limit how warm we would be in comparison to normal.

And this year, there is a good chance that we might not be in the “classic” El Nino pattern. This is the one where the coast off of Peru the oceans are very warm. That may not be the case this year. Instead, we are looking to be in what is called an “El Nino ModokI”. In this type of a winter, the area off Peru actually stays cool with the warm air out over the middle Pacific near Hawaii.

This results in a shifting of the typical El Nino weather patterns back to the west, and opening up a pattern that allows for a better chance of cold air to drop in over the East and us here in Virginia

In fact, if you look at the data of snowfall during El Nino years you will see that it does average up to 3” above normal for a season in parts of Virginia but that have skewed in either up or down in a hurry. El Nino years in 1982-1983 and 1986-1987 both were big snow years for us. However, some of our 10 least snowy years have also happened in El Nino years—3 of them in the last 30 years.

So while this favors more action for us weather-wise, it is not screaming snow for us.

There are a bunch of other factors that come into play for us which may help deliver the chill that we need for wintry weather

First up is the Arctic Oscillation. In simple terms, it is whether the Arctic is going to supply colder than normal air to us. Part of this is driven by how warm the air is in the Stratosphere which tends to be opposite of the lower layer of the atmosphere.

In this picture, you can see how the “AO” as negative for a lot of the 50s and 60s, during which we had a consistent period of snowy winters over us. And look at the drop for 2010. And right now the trend is for this to be going negative right now. If that is the case, it helps the case for those who want to see some wintry weather here.

So that is one plus working in our favor.

And finally, another signal that we look at is something called the North Atlantic Oscillation. This is basically the difference in air pressure between a low-pressure system over Iceland and a high pressure over the Azores.

When it is positive, this pattern supports an east to west movement of storms that limits the amount of cold air that comes into our area. When it is negative, it is a favorable pattern for colder and stormier weather for us.

As you can see, most of the time, the NAO for the winter has actually been positive. But in that 1940s to 1970s period it was negative quite often. And if you look at the right-hand end of the chart, those 2 big down blue bars match up with 1995-1996 and 2009-2010—Big winters in the east.

Right now the NAO is positive, but there are signs that this will change for the early part of 2019.

So what does it mean for us? One of the things that we do try to look at previous setups in the weather patterns that looked similar to what we are expecting and try to use their history to make the forecast. We call those Analogs.

5 Winters come up as having patterns that seem to match what looks to be on tap for us.

In Chronological Order here they are and how much snow we saw in Richmond: 

1969-1970 7.6”

1977-1978 11.4”

1986-1987 21.8”

1995-1996 32.2”

2009-2010 28.0”

The 3rd and 4th of those were snowy winters over us, and remember in 2009-2010, we just, and I mean just missed getting clobbered by Snowmaggedon. 

With that in mind, here is what I expect this winter:

First, December will probably turn out to be somewhat quiet over us. In the short term, we usually see patterns that flip on the average of 6 to 8 weeks. That would imply that we should be coming out of this currently cool pattern in the next few weeks. In fact, the month could be fairly comfortable and that would drastically limit the chances of a White Christmas.

Starting in January though, things are going to get busy. Yes, we will have a winter thaw sometime, but from the middle of January through early March, I look for a return to a rather cold pattern as the AO/Polar Vortex cranks into gear. I do not expect a “Beach Weather February” like we had last year.

That would set us up for a chance for 4 significant storms during the mid-January to early March time frame.

I would expect the first 2 to be somewhat potent over us, and that the March one might surprise us with how much snow we get.

With that in mind, here is what I expect for the winter:

Average Temperature 38.8° -1.1°

Winter Snowfall 19.9” +7.0”

White Christmas 5% Chance