Mark Breen’s calm baritone is a familiar part of the soundtrack to life in Vermont, where his detailed daily forecasts air daily on Vermont Public Radio. He’s the senior meteorologist and planetarium director at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, where his Eye on the Sky weather forecasts are produced. Breen doesn’t spend a lot of time riding ski lifts, but says he likes to get out with friends on nordic skis or snowshoes. And he’s a big fan of winter.
While he’s a Vermont guy, we talked to him about this stellar winter of 2014-15.
One of the things VPR listeners like about you is that when there’s a snow event, you don’t automatically report it as a bad thing.
It’s actually very gratifying that listeners on VPR truly appreciate the fact I do the opposite. I don’t get all whacky about it—“Oh my god, the snow and the cold are going to be terrible”—because I enjoy being outside. Yeah, Sunday was a little extreme—and we have tens of thousands of listeners who enjoy the same thing. Sure, people want to know what to be prepared for and take it seriously. But also, our economy here in Vermont is very dependent on this season, so when you hear people, especially in a media setting, making it seem like such a disaster and you hear things like, “Oh, you can’t go outside,” that seems to do a disservice to a huge chunk of the economy.
So how great is this season?
It's certainly a good one for snow lovers. I’d say it’s been a B+. Not quite an A. We had a great start with that pre-Thanksgiving storm, but then there was that Christmas thaw. Once we hit the turn of the year we really settled into nice steady pattern of cold temperatures and snowfall. Looking back, we’ve only had a couple of days above freezing, and we haven’t even seen 40 degrees in February, so no freeze and thaw like we usually get. And snowfall for the whole season is above normal—obviously way above normal as you go farther south. And because it’s been consistently cold the snow we got is still here.
I saw a comment the other day, “This is what winters used to be like.” Well, there certainly were winters like this, but this is not your normal winter, especially the depths of the cold for such extended periods. If February finishes the way we’re projecting, it’ll be the first February where it never got above freezing, something we’ve never seen in like 120 years of Fairbanks Museum records. It’s probably the coldest February in 20 years, maybe even going back to 1979.
What explains the weather we’re having?
There were a few long-range forecasts that did a good job with this winter as a whole. The keys they talked about last fall included the El Niño. And El Niños have different flavors. This one, instead of the warm water in the Pacific being down by South America, which is typical, it was out in the middle of the Pacific, and that changes the pattern. That’s one factor. Another is that the water just off the West Coast, from Alaska down to California, has been warm, and that works great for us here in New England. That kept warm air forming over there, which gets forced up into western Canada and Alaska and causes compensation in other places. When it’s warm up there, the cold air comes down here. That was the primary thing. And because the water is warm, it’s harder to dislodge, and that locks in a pattern for a longer period of time. You might get a little break, but then it just sets back up again.
At this point there’s no particular sign that this pattern will change. I don’t see it. Sometimes it flipflops, where for week after week it’s the same, and then bang, someone flips a switch and it flops. But this year I think any change will be more gradual. I think March will be interesting because of what’s going on right now. The storm track has been to our south, down around D.C. and Virginia for instance, because cold air pushes it down there. The storm track runs on that edge between cold and warm air, so as that cold-air mass shrinks later in the winter the storm track is likely to get a little farther north and closer to us. So March could be interesting.
You said March will be “interesting.” Will you hazard a forecast if we promise not to hold you to it?
OK, just for fun. I think March is going to average out slightly colder than normal, especially in the first half of the month. And I’d say snowfall will be above average, and that will be more true north than south. I’d say about 20 percent above average. It’s the same pattern, the same setup we’ve had all winter, which has been so hard on the Western resorts. What doesn’t help them gives us great snow.
Gotta ask: Is this global warming?
People try to make that case. The way I see it: This is pretty much just the weather at work. Climate takes into account a longterm set of averages—30 years or longer. What’s happening this year isn’t necessarily the result of any climate change. Any time there’s extreme weather, lot of people—it’s human nature—they want a scapegoat. But I don’t think it’s that simple. We know that climate change occurred prior to humans—temperatures went up, they went down. When you’re talking about what factors change the climate generally, you do have to add in humans as an additional factor, but we’re not suddenly the only factor. As a scientist, you run some serious risks if you ignore ocean cycles and solar activity and that type of thing.