Cold winter? Mild? Who knows?

By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – Last winter was, in a word, unwintry.
Record high temperatures were set or tied in Tupelo for six days in March, and the winter’s heating requirement of 2,403 degree-days in Oxford was more than 23 percent lower than the 30-year average. Tupelo’s mean daily temperature was above the norm by 6.5, 3.1 and 9.8 degrees, respectively in January, February and March.
While we’re still under late summer’s dome of heat and humidity, let’s ask what the outlook is for the upcoming winter.
The short version is, El Niño is coming.
“There is no indication of any probability of below- or above-average temperatures,” said State Climatologist Charles Wax, who teaches meteorology and climatology at Mississippi State University. “Probably the biggest player in that would be El Niño. The last two winters we’ve had La Niñas, which tend to make our winters warmer, but we’ve moved up into the El Niño range.”
El Niño refers to unusually warm surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, La Niña to its opposite.
“Usually El Niño means cooler and more precipitation for the Mid-South – but I stress the word ‘usually,'” said Marlene Mickelson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Memphis. “And it doesn’t mean radical changes.”
Last winter’s departures from norms were quite radical.
“We had high pressure dominating the eastern half of the United States last winter,” Mickelson said. “That blocked out anything that came from the west most of the season. There was very little snow out west, making what did reach us from the west warmer than usual.”
Wax said it’s hard to be too confident in a long-range forecast.
“Looking out that far, we don’t have a really good grip on things,” he said.
Some folks still put stock in woolly caterpillars, squirrel activity and other signs that their ancestors used to predict the season ahead.
“There’s probably a little kernel of truth in it,” he said. “Back when people paid a lot closer attention to what was happening with the weather, they may have noticed more squirrel activity or something of that sort before a winter that was colder than usual.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com