U.S. Snowpack Coverage is at One of Its Lowest Levels for Early January in the Past Decade

Brian Donegan
Published: January 9, 2019

The area of the United States currently covered by snow is among the smallest for early January in the past decade.

As of 1 a.m. EST Tuesday, the National Weather Service's National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC) estimated via satellite that 30.7 percent of the Lower 48 states was covered by snow.

The majority of that snowpack coverage was in the Rockies, Cascades and Sierra Nevada, with some snow cover also present in the northern Plains, upper Midwest, northern Great Lakes, Appalachians, interior Northeast and northern New England.

This animation shows satellite-estimated snow depth at 1 a.m. EST Jan. 8 from 2010 through 2019.
(National Weather Service/National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center)

The only year in the past decade – since 2010 – with less snow cover on Jan. 8 was 2012, when 14.9 percent of the Lower 48 was covered by snow.

About a month ago on Dec. 10, 46.7 percent of the contiguous U.S. had snowpack coverage, according to the NOHRSC.

Persistently cold temperatures allowed for snow from winter storms Avery, Bruce, Carter and Diego, occurring in a four-week span between mid-November and early December, to stick around across portions of the Northeast, Midwest, Plains, Rockies and even the South.

The amount of cold and snow in the Plains, Midwest and Northeast from November into early December ranked near the worst on record for so early in the season, but since then, there has been a drastic change.

The latter half of December brought milder and less-snowy weather to most of the U.S. as the polar jet stream shifted northward to near the Canadian border. This pattern persisted into the first week of 2019.

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During Christmas week, Winter Storm Eboni produced a widespread swath of snow from the Pacific Northwest to New England and as far south as Texas and Oklahoma. Eboni was followed by Winter Storm Fisher from New Year's weekend into the first few days of 2019, which brought Oklahoma City its largest snowfall in almost eight years. However, mild air abruptly returned after those storms, so the snow melted quickly.

The animation shows temperatures compared to average in November versus December. November was dominated by colder-than-average temperatures in the central and eastern United States (blue shadings). December was warmer than average in much of the Lower 48 (orange shadings).

Boston is one city that has struggled to pick up accumulating snow so far this winter. Only 0.2 inches were tallied in Beantown through Monday, 13 inches below the average by this point in the season.

This is the least-snowy start to winter since 1999-2000, when not even a trace of snow was observed at Boston's Logan Airport until Jan. 13.

(MORE: Snow Winners and Losers So Far This Season

There is still plenty of time left to pick up snow, however. Major Northeast snowstorms such as nor'easters and other coastal storms have a distinct peak in late January or February, according to NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

While the overall lack of persistent cold and snow this past month is good news for those who prefer milder weather, it's bad news for others who rely on winter's chill.

Snow-removal companies are struggling to find work. One company in Indianapolis, where only 0.9 inches of snow has fallen so far this winter, said it has hardly made any money this season.

“The winter we moved in here, I made close to $60,000 in snow removal," Joshua Russ, owner of central Indiana-based I Cut Grass, LLC, told WXIN-TV. "You take $60,000 and as of right now, we haven’t made $60."

An average winter in Indianapolis would have recorded 9.9 inches of snow by Jan. 7.

(MORE: 5 Weather Questions About 2019

In southern Wisconsin, stink bugs have been emerging from their winter hideouts and finding their way into homes and businesses, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Milwaukee and Madison are two of the hot spots right now.

"If you're in those areas, I've had calls and reports from people who have found hundreds, if not thousands, of them in their homes," P.J. Liesch, University of Wisconsin Extension entomologist, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In the South, daffodils bloomed this week near Little Rock, Arkansas, in what is typically the coldest time of the year for much of the U.S.

The springlike weather might not stick around much longer.

In its three- to four-week outlook, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) predicts below-average temperatures will return to many areas east of the Rockies during the period spanning Jan. 19 to Feb. 1. One exception is the Southeast, where the CPC is forecasting equal chances of above- and below-average temperatures.

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