By Mark E. Vogler
---- — If the snow storm that socked the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire on the day after the New Year were typical of this winter season, it would go down as one of the most severe in recent memory.
Meteorologists rated the northeaster that roared through the region that day as the coldest snow storm in nearly a decade. Most communities received more than a foot of snow to go with single digit temperatures and a sub-zero windchill that made shoveling sidewalks and scraping car windshields dangerous work. Just a couple of bone-chilling minutes outside without gloves could lead to frostbite.
It was part of a historic cold wave which struck Canada and the United States and extended as far south as Central Florida and into the northeastern section of Mexico. The Jan. 2 snowfall totals, coupled with the extreme cold, have been the climax of a winter which has already exceeded normal totals during the early months for many area communities.
Another winter storm began hitting southern New England yesterday afternoon with the National Weather Service saying Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island will bear the brunt of the storm, with 10 to 14 inches of snow. Gov. Deval Patrick urged drivers to stay off the roads until 5 a.m. today.
Midway through February, the region is on pace for a snowier than average winter.
For instance, data compiled by the National Weather Service and the National Climatic Data Center show that Newburyport has already exceeded the monthly total averages for December, January and February over the years 1981-2011. The 52.7 inches of snowfall recorded as of last week was close to reaching the seasonal average of 55.5 inches over those two decades.
The Feb. 5 storm, which dropped about 10 or more inches of snow on most communities throughout the region, pushed the Boston area past its normal annual snowfall total of 43.8 inches, with four to six weeks of prime snow season left.
“It certainly has been a snowier than average winter, and I suppose I would call it an ‘ordinary’ New England winter,” said Ryan Breton, a student studying meteorology at Penn State University who runs the AtkinsonWeather.com site, which monitors weather in the Atkinson, N.H. area.
“This winter got off to a much faster start than recent winters, with multiple storms in December. This was the snowiest December — at least in Atkinson — since 2008. So far this winter, 68 inches of snow have accumulated in Atkinson. The seasonal average — based on my estimates — for the Merrimack Valley is around 55 to 60 inches. We are already well ahead of where we should be by the ‘end’ of the season,” Breton said.
“When people think of winter in New England, they think of snow and cold, and this winter so far has been a classic example of both. We have definitely seen snowier and colder winters in the past. In fact, I recall 2011 — we had 43 inches of snow in January and 27 inches of snow in February! It certainly could be worse than what we’ve seen,” he said.
Michael Miller, manager of Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Andover, also considers January 2011 as the “worst” winter weather to hit the region, at least during the 13 years he’s been overseeing operations at the airport.
“It seemed like every Tuesday, I had to bail out of class because I was plowing the airport runways,” said Miller, who was pursuing a master of law degree.
“I remember weeks when it just snowed 18 to 20 inches. To me, this winter is tame. I have endured worst snow storms and winters. I don’t think this is bad at all. If you ask me to rank this winter — with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst — I would give it a 5 or 6. To me, this is a typical winter of my youth,” he said.
It was severely cold too. The low temperature that January was minus 6 with a mean minimum of 14.9. Bitterly cold temperatures continued through that February, with a low of 3 and a mean minimum of 16.2.
There are at least three winters over the past decade that tower over this winter for total snowfall, particularly 2004-05 when Haverhill recorded 99 inches of snow, according to the National Climatic Data Center. During 2010-11, 88.6 inches of snow fell across the city and 86.1 inches during 2008-09, agency data shows.
The National Climatic Data Center had no official snowfall totals for Haverhill this winter, but there were local estimates of more than 55 inches of snow. Heavy accumulation during the final weeks of winter could make this one of the snowiest seasons in recent memory.
But Breton doesn’t consider this winter particularly severe, extreme or harsh.
“We have seen plenty of winters like this one in the past, and will continue to see cold and snowy winters like this one in the future,” Breton said.
“New England is in a unique spot with mountains to the northwest and the ocean to the southeast. Both play a major role in our weather and the development of snowstorms,” he said.
“The driver of the weather this winter has been the cold. Arctic cold has dominated much of the northeastern United States since the start of the new year. Many of our air masses originated in the Arctic – and then traveled south (modifying some by the time they got here). In my view, the cold hasn’t necessarily been unprecedented — but the fact that it has simply not let up is quite amazing,” he said.
While he may see it as a typical “cold and snowy winter,” Breton doesn’t regard it as a normal one.
The winter so far has featured up and down temperatures — with relatively few days close to “normal,” according to Breton.
“In January, for example, Lawrence hit a high of 60 degrees on the 7th and 11th. On the 3rd, the high was only 14 degrees. There have been many mornings in the single digits above and below zero. There have been relatively few days around the ‘normal’ value,” he said.