Winter is coming: Forecasters predict cold, snowy season

November came in like a lion with an early-season snowstorm creating massive snowdrifts at Max Patch in Madison County. Photo by Jake Frankel

The first official day of winter isn’t until Dec. 21, but Western North Carolina has already received an abundance of cold and snowy weather this year.

November came in like a lion, with a few inches of snow falling in Asheville on the first day of the month, and a whopping 22 inches blasting Mount LeConte in the Smokies. Many in the region went on to experience their first “White Thanksgiving” in ages, and  Twitter was abuzz on many occasions with the #avlsnomg hashtag as people spotted flurries falling from the sky. Mount Mitchell and Beech Mountain both experienced the snowiest November in their recorded histories (see graphic at the bottom of this page).

And if a wealth of long-range predictions come true, the early shots of snow could be harbingers of much more to come. Ray’s Weather Center, a local forecasting service that produces several websites noted for their accuracy, predicts WNC will have slightly colder temperatures overall and receive about 20 percent more snowfall than the 55-year average.

Roger Martin, lead forecaster for Ray’s, says the local forecast is largely based on the high probability that surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean will be warmer than normal, the so-called El Niño phenomenon.

“It’s amazing that in one region of the world, a little warming of the water can affect weather all over the globe,” says Martin. Of course, he cautions that forecasting weather accurately is challenging a couple of weeks ahead of time, let alone several months in advance. The drastic changes in elevations across WNC due to the mountainous terrain make it extra tough to prognosticate, he says. Asheville, which lies in the French Broad River Valley, receives an average of 14 inches of snow a year, while the lofty peak of Mount Mitchell, only about 35 miles away, gets more than 100 inches.

When winter storms head to the region, “the most challenging thing is predicting where the rain and snow line will be,” says Martin. “As a meteorologist, winter weather in the mountains is like weight training: It’s not easy, but we pride ourselves in trying to predict what will happen in those wildly differing elevations.”

Skeptics about Ray’s predictions for this winter don’t just have to take the site’s word for it. A long list of other outlets is also calling for snowier and colder conditions than normal, including WeatherBELL, WCNC, WXSouth and The Old Farmers Almanac, a popular — and decidedly unscientific — guide, since 1792.

Even the clairvoyant woolly worms in Banner Elk are calling for a harsh winter. The town hosted the 37th annual Woolly Worm Festival this fall, and human interpreters said that judging by the 13 fuzzy dark stripes on a worm named Kwazimodo, it would be a cold, snowy year.

All of this is good news for local winter sports enthusiasts. Sugar Mountain Ski Resort owner Gunther Jochl says, “It’s a great business when it’s nice and cold. Of course, when it’s warm and icky, it stinks.” The success of the entire ski industry can be boiled down to one main phrase, he jokes: “It’s the weather, dummy.” (See “Winterizing WNC” for more on local skiing)

Predictions for this winter aside, stats from Ray’s Weather Center show that snowfall averages in the region are generally lower over the last 10 years than they are over the last 55 years. Amid growing worries across the world about the dire consequences of climate change, the trend seems as if it could keep folks like Jochl up at night. But his wife, Kim Jochl, who serves as Sugar’s marketing manager, says they’re not concerned.

“I’m not scared one bit,” she says. “Winter has always occurred. … I don’t see winter going away.”

info-graphic by Steph Guinan
info-graphic by Steph Guinan
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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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