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Winter of wacky weather takes toll

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Posted on February 25, 2010 |
By Kathryn Flagg



web_greenmonday.jpg
A BLUE SKY, sunshine and brown grass on the Middlebury town green Monday afternoon were replaced by cloudy skies and heavy snow by Wednesday morning (below). Independent photos/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — Finally!

That’s what many in the area said when they woke up Wednesday morning to the first real snow storm in Addison County in more than a month.

Those looking for a scapegoat when it comes to the relative lack of snow this February can just blame the jet stream, a fast flowing, narrow air current that moves from west to east, and influences much of North America’s weather patterns.

That’s the culprit that Burlington-based National Weather Service meteorologist William Hanley offered up as an explanation for the bare ground that frustrated many Vermont outdoor enthusiasts since the late January thaw while other parts of the United States have been hammered with snow.

And while this week’s snow was abundant on Wednesday morning, it was put at risk by rain showers forecast when the Addison Independent went to press.

Bringing noticeably less snow this month than usual, the weird winter weather has had repercussions for winter sports enthusiasts, local ski areas and road crews alike. Meanwhile, other parts of the eastern United States — including southern neighbors like Washington, D.C. — have clocked record amounts of snow.

That disparity comes because the jet stream has split into two branches. The southern branch has scooped up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s translated into snow days galore for many eastern towns and cities.

Meanwhile, Vermont is under the influence of the northern branch of the jet stream, a weaker weather system that carries less moisture. Hanley said that sometimes the two jet streams “fade” into one big system — that’s been the case occasionally in the past during Vermont’s larger snowstorms.

Another factor in the winter’s weather this year is the El Niño weather pattern we’re experiencing. El Niño cycles happen roughly every five years, and take place when surface water on the Pacific Ocean warms abnormally. This year, with sea surface temperatures running warmer than usual, more moisture is available in the atmosphere for storms.

Hanley said the El Niño weather has had some influence on the storms experienced along the Eastern seaboard — but it’s also created the potential for more rain, which has been on display at the Vancouver Olympics his month.

So far this winter, snowfall in Burlington is running close to last year’s numbers. Burlington has counted 73.8 inches of snow, and last year at this time the station had recorded 74.5 inches.

But a large chunk of this year’s tally came all at once, when a snowstorm in early January blanketed Burlington with 33 inches. Without that storm, Hanley predicts this year’s numbers would be considerably lower than average.

Meanwhile, at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in Hancock, the bare ground in the valley has kept skiers away from the slopes, even though conditions at the Snow Bowl are good. Last weekend, for instance, the Snow Bowl got another eight inches of snow.

Manager Peter Mackey said the bowl had to close down 12 of its 17 runs after the huge January thaw washed away snow on the trails that can’t be blanketed with manmade snow. After last weekend’s snowfall, though, every run is open again. Last week, out-of-state vacationers bolstered numbers at the ski area, but Mackey said this week got off to a disappointing start, even with many local schools on vacation.

He thinks that’s because poor conditions at lower elevations dissuade skiers from making the trek to the bowl.

“Unfortunately, when there’s no snow in the valley, people think about other things,” Mackey said.

The county’s two Nordic areas — Rikert Touring Center at the Middlebury College Bread Loaf Campus in Ripton and Blueberry Hill Cross Country Ski Center in Goshen — also have reported surprisingly good conditions, but fewer skiers than normal due to the perception from residents living in the valley that there isn’t enough snow to make a trip into the mountains worth while.

“The conditions here have really been outstanding much of the winter,” said Blueberry Hill Inn owner Tony Clark, “but we’ve had a hard time convincing people down in the valleys that that’s the case.”

It’s not just recreation that the lack of snow has hampered — it’s work, too.

The absence of snow has meant that town road crews have been spared long hours on their plows. That translates into less overtime, according to Dan Werner, the director of operations for the Middlebury public works department, and more time to spend on other maintenance projects, like right of way clean ups.

The mild weather also has meant that Middlebury’s road crews are not using much salt this year. But because salt stores are purchased in June, this hasn’t made for any immediate savings.

Werner said the public works department will take a look at its stockpiles come spring to see if the amount of salt leftover this winter means Middlebury can purchase less for next year.

But on Monday he warned against jumping the gun on big savings. He remembers that in 2007 a relatively mild winter meant the town stores of salt were still pretty high coming into February. But then a huge Valentine’s Day blizzard, followed by another large storm in March, equalized any year-to-year differences the road crews had noticed.

“It’s not over ’til it’s over,” Werner said.

Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at kathrynf@addisonindependent.com.

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