Mild winter comparisons: Could we see more snow in East Tennessee?

10:51 PM, Feb 7, 2012   |    comments
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Over the past few weeks, 10News has received dozens of Facebook comments and feedback from viewers who say the winter we've seen so far reminds them of what East Tennessee saw 19 years ago before the Blizzard of '93.

The superstorm dumped heavy snow across most of the Eastern United States on March 12 - 13, 1993, earning the title "The Storm of the Century."

Knoxville received about 15 inches of snow and most of East Tennessee saw true blizzard conditions with plenty of strong wind and heavy snow.

Mt. LeConte picked up the most snow recorded anywhere from the massive storm with 5 feet of accumulation.

The storm toppled trees and power lines, which left thousands of East Tennesseans without power, in some cases for up to 10 days. At that time, it was the largest power outage in KUB's history.

Rescue crews worked for days to rescue more than 100 hikers who were stranded in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including dozens of high school students from Michigan. All were found safe.

The blizzard was preceded by warmer than average temperatures and even a severe weather outbreak that produced a deadly tornado in Lenoir City on Feb. 21.

So can we read anything into the warm weather we've had so far this season? The best answer is maybe.

10News set out to see if there are any similarities between this winter and the winter of 1992-93 and find out if we could still receive some cold temperatures -- or even snow -- before this season ends.

Dennis Fox is probably more aware than anyone of how mild this winter has been. The warm temperatures have given him the chance to catch up on tasks around his farm at the Fruit and Berry Patch in Halls.

"It's been a great winter for working. We're getting a lot of work done that we wouldn't get if it was cold weather," Fox said.

But the warm weather also makes him nervous.

"We've discussed it here among ourselves, you know. Just the warm weather is going to get us," he said.

The spring-like weather has fooled Fox's blueberry bushes; they're already starting to swell.

"You know the way things are starting to swell up, I just looked at these blueberries two days ago and they have swollen quite a bit in two days. And at this rate, the other things, peaches, will be swelling. Strawberries will be putting out buds. So it's getting sort of critical for us, if we do have some very cold weather," he said.

And Fox knows a late cold snap is certainly still possible.

Back in the early months of 1993, the warm temperatures caused his plants to bloom early--with disastrous results.

"Well '93, the main thing was the blueberries had swollen to the point that when it turned cold during the blizzard, it killed all of our blueberries that year. We lost the entire crop," Fox remembered.

The storm also damaged his peach and apple trees.

But the weather didn't destroy all of his plants. Fox said the snow insulated his strawberries and protected them.

"We had about 15-18 inches of snow on top of them and they stayed nice and cozy down in under there and it didn't hurt the strawberry crop at all," he recalled.

Fox has farmed in East Tennessee long enough to know that we're not yet in the clear when it comes to winter weather. In fact, he said he would welcome some cold temperatures--as long as they aren't too cold.

"It's almost a given that we're going to have some more cold weather and we're going to get down into frosting range. And if it doesn't get down in the 20's and slow things down, it's going to bloom out," he explained.

January 2012 was about five degrees warmer than normal. So how does that compare to conditions leading up to the March superstorm in 1993?

"Well, the '92-'93 January certainly was very mild. December was almost normal, if not slightly below normal, December of '92. This winter both December and January have been very mild, as everybody knows. Now going and looking back there to the snowfall and all that, our latest snowfall is only a tenth of an inch. Back in that winter, only three-tenths of an inch. So it is similar in the way. But it's got to be kind of a stretch to relate that to a big superstorm, big blizzard type of thing," explained George Mathews, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in Morristown.

"A lot of things have to come together for that to happen. It's one thing to have a warm Gulf of Mexico and to have energy involved with that, but also to have cold air to tap into. We could get a storm come through here, but it would be too warm for there to actually be any snowfall in it. So it would be a stretch for us, a huge stretch for us to even make any estimation that we should expect something like a superstorm."

Mathews said all the ingredients came together in March 1993 to produce a storm that's still incredible to recall.

"Well a storm like that, to get labeled the Storm of the Century, a lot of things have to come together. In some ways it was amazing, that with that amount of energy and that amount of moisture that it was snow. And I think a lot of that is attributed to how powerful the storm was," he explained.

"When you lift the air, it cools off. And there was just so much lift in the atmosphere that it cooled off enough to be snow, whereas a lot of times, when we have that time of year in the middle of March, you have a lot of lift, it's warm enough where it's not only all rain but it's usually a tornado outbreak."

While a storm of that magnitude is not likely, Mathews said it is good to remember that East Tennessee can experience harsh winter conditions on occasion.

"It's always good to know what could happen and to always be prepared for a winter storm like that. In some ways, after a winter like this, it's hard to believe that actually happened. That we had 15-20 inches of snow in the area and how paralyzing it was. People that were here remember it. People that weren't here probably have a hard time imagining that," he said.

The Climate Prediction Center called for a mild winter this season because of a La Niña pattern and so far that forecast has held true.

Historically, however, warmer winter temperatures don't usually last until spring in East Tennessee without some change.

"Those mildest Decembers and Januarys that we looked at, the February and March following usually had at least a little bit of snow in them. So maybe not a blizzard, but we're not out of the woods yet for having some potential for snow," Mathews said.

If the mild weather does continue, Mathews believes we could see an earlier start to the spring severe weather season.

"The Gulf of Mexico is quite warm and that's the fuel for the thunderstorms in the Southeastern U.S. And the south winds are already bringing up a lot of warm, moist air.... We've been pretty lucky in East Tennessee not having too much severe weather this winter."

Fox says he will continue to watch the weather closely since he's learned over the years that conditions can change at a moment's notice.

"I have come to the conclusion that you can't predict the weather in Tennessee very far in advance," Fox said.

And he'll deal with whatever comes his way.

"You know, I don't worry about things I can't do anything about."

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