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Snow in New Jersey?

The winter of 2022-2023 was relatively mild in New Jersey. In fact, temperatures recorded in the state during the month of January were more similar to those of an average New Jersey March, or to winter weather in the Carolinas. January 2023’s average high temperature was 48.9°F, or 8.6° above normal, making it the second mildest January on record. According to the Rutgers NJ Weather Network, the month’s snow accumulation was “meager” in the northern part of the state and “nonexistent” in the south. February’s weather was also milder than average. The statewide average temperature was 38.9°F, which was 5° greater than the average February temperatures recorded between 1991 and 2020. In February 2023, the state saw an average snowfall of 1.8 inches, which was 6.4 inches below normal and the 22nd least snowy on record.

In an interview with NPR, New Jersey State Climatologist (and Distinguished Professor in the Rutgers Department of Geography) David Robinson discusses the abnormal winter weather of 2022-2023. He describes January 2023’s weather as unusual, with “March-like” temperatures recorded on some days. He also notes that the state saw little snowfall that month, with the central part of the state seeing its “first measurable snow of the season, just two-tenths of an inch, on the first of February.” That was, Professor Robinson notes, the latest the region had gone without measurable snowfall since 1895.

What is causing these above-average temperatures and below-average snowfall totals? Professor Robinson, in the NPR interview, says that a La Nina weather pattern is partly to blame. However, the current winter weather trends in New Jersey and elsewhere also reflect changes to the global climate over time. A presentation by the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst notes that the annual mean temperature in New Jersey has increased by about 3.6°F since 1895. The presentation goes on to predict that winters could get even warmer in the years to come, with average temperatures reaching 45-50°F. Winter precipitation will likewise increase, but given the rising temperatures, there will be more rain and less snow.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) predicts similar patterns in future winters. In a Summary of Climate Change in New Jersey prepared for educators, the DEP states that temperatures are consistently increasing, and that going forward, these increases will be felt most strongly during the winter. The DEP predicts less intense cold waves, fewer days with temperatures below freezing, and less measurable snow accumulation. At the same time, rising temperatures will prompt rising intensity in storm systems. This means that when the state does get a snowstorm, it will have the potential to be quite powerful.

New Jersey winters were not always this mild and snowless. Those who lived along the East Coast of the United States in January 1996 probably remember the “Blizzard of ‘96,” which brought often record-breaking snowfall from Washington, D.C. to Boston. This storm caused significant disruption and damage. Some areas saw transportation more or less shut down for days, temporary suspension of mail delivery, and roofs collapsing under the weight of heavy snow. This storm looms large in popular memory, but technically, it was not a blizzard. A blizzard, by definition, must have wind speeds greater than 35 mph (56 kph) for at least three hours, along with significant falling or blowing snow that leads to poor visibility. The 1996 storm did not meet these conditions, but because contemporary media referred to it as the “Blizzard of ‘96,” the name stuck.

Can New Jersey expect another Blizzard of ‘96 in the winter of 2023-2024? The answer is most likely no, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Climate Prediction Center. Forecasters are predicting a winter with a 40-50% chance of warmer-than-average temperatures. Some are also calling for a 33-40% chance at more snow than normal for this winter. Last winter was one of New Jersey’s least snowy on record, and if the NOAA predictions are accurate, this one may be more of the same.