With the unusually warm temperatures of late November and early December, it's hard for many Hoosiers to imagine the impending snow flurries, freezing wind chills and hazardous weather that are sure to accompany the winter season.
Regardless of fall ending on a mild note, David Arnold, associate professor of meteorology and climatology, predicts that, by mid-winter, the Midwest will encounter a cold period.
"Right now we've seen a very warm December, and that will probably persist for the next few weeks, if not a little longer," Arnold said. "However, in the later part of the month, and then into January, there's potential for a cold snap to occur."
According to Arnold, long range forecasting relies heavily on the educated guesses of those predicting the weather.
"It's difficult to predict the weather for the next three days, let alone the next three or four months," Arnold said. "As time goes on, the confidence levels in forecasters' predictions increase, but there's no guarantee in their accuracy."
Arnold said gauging future precipitation for a given area is even more difficult to predict than future temperatures. As of now, Arnold explained there is no indication that this year's anticipated rain and snow fall will be any different than average. Last year Muncie saw almost nine inches of snow, and whether or not the city will see more or less this year depends on where polar and subtropical air masses will meet up over the state.
"We've seen an upper level air flow coming out of the southwest, and that pattern has been locked in for a couple weeks. This explains the recent warm weather," Arnold said. "Cold air has been building up from the north, and now we just need some sort of mechanism to draw that air down in order to begin experiencing colder weather."
Arnold said that if the front, which moves in a northeast to southwest direction, sets up over this area, then normal temperatures with above normal precipitation will likely occur. If the front's polar air mass pushes southeast, then Indiana will be on the northwest side of its boundary and can anticipate colder, dryer air with less precipitation. There is also the scenario that if the front remains north of the region, the state will remain southeast of its path and encounter a greater potential for warmer air and heavier precipitation.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) has currently predicted temperatures zero to five degrees colder than last year for the northern states, and southern states are expected to experience temperatures slightly warmer than those recorded last season.
"Last year we saw a colder than average December, and a warmer January that was followed by an average February," Arnold said. "This year I think we'll end up seeing a reversal of that with a warm December and colder January. However, I think overall the season will end up balancing itself out and looking a lot like last year."
Despite societal beliefs that weather can be forecast by observing the fur on woolly worm caterpillars or charting its progress with the Farmer's Almanac, Arnold also said there is little scientific reasoning to such methods making accurate predictions. Although the almanac matches Arnold's predictions for a mild winter (excluding January), its call on frequent flurries for late November has already been wrong.
"When the Farmer's Almanac is right, people tend to remember it," he said. "If it's not, they don't, and -- in reality -- it's usually not."
According to Arnold, the current warm weather also serves as little indication for the potential of future winter conditions such as severe snow storms or blizzards. Associate geography professor Robert Schwartz, Ball State's newest climatologist, has spent the past 2 1/2 years studying blizzards. Schwartz said the probability of such a storm occurring in Muncie this year is less than 5 percent.
"Most of the worst blizzards that occur during the season are going to be felt in the Red River Valley, such as the Dakotas and Minnesota," Schwartz said. "The most damaging blizzard the Midwest has ever received occurred during the winter of 1978."
Schwartz's has studied over 40 years of data to determine spatial and temporal relationships that occur between individual storms, as well as the impact of each on society in the form of injuries and damage.
The classifications for a blizzard include weather conditions that persist for more than three hours and involve falling, blowing snow, visibility of less than one-quarter mile and winds that exceed 35 miles per hour.
Most of the blizzards and severe storms that occur in Indiana have taken place in January. Schwartz predicted that the northern counties of the state can expect a 10 percent chance of receiving a blizzard this year, and counties south of Indianapolis have less than a two percent chance of receiving such a storm.