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Has there ever been a semester without a major snowstorm?

December 15, 2011 By John Lucas

With memories of blizzards and snow days fresh in our heads, Inside UW–Madison wondered about the relative lack of snowfall this month and whether a fall semester has ever gone by without accumulating snow. Madison currently stands at a paltry 1.6 inches.

Photo: Snowstorm

Snow has been an infrequent visitor to campus lately. Will it last?

And more importantly, does a snow-free December make the rest of the winter more or less snowy?

John Young and Ed Hopkins of the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, affiliated with the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, put their heads together and provided some insight.

iUW: When was the last December without a significant snowfall?

A: The normal December snowfall is about 13 inches, but it is extremely variable. On the dry end, in the last 11 years we have had four December totals of less than three inches, 2006 being the most recent example. On the deep end, December 2000 was our record-breaker: 35 inches.

iUW: How rare is it?

A: Interestingly, during the period 1920-2000, such dry Decembers (with less than three inches) occurred only about once every 10 years. In our 120-year record, amazingly, four of the Decembers had no measurable snowfall at all – they experienced only “trace” amounts, amounting to snow flurries.

iUW: What’s the latest we’ve ever gone?

A: The latest measurable snowfall was 0.7 inches on Jan. 7, 1940, barely enough to notice. The latest four-inch snowfall in any winter, requiring snow shoveling, was Feb. 26.

iUW: Does a lack of December snow mean anything for the rest of the winter?

A: The answer is “sometimes yes, sometimes no,” as expected in our chaotic weather and climate. In recent years, the months following December were sometimes more snowy than normal, sometimes less. A thorough statistical analysis would probably indicate a slight tendency for lower seasonal snow totals following a dry December.

No significant snow is expected in the next several days, and long-range model forecasts expect conditions to be dry until the last week in December. So, the outlook is for the December snow total to be well below the 13-inch average total.

Tags: weather