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As Punxsutawney Phil predicts spring is near, winter is nowhere in sight, real forecasters say

With the polar vortex wintering in the Arctic, the ground is bare and looking to stay that way for awhile, no matter what Phil says.

Groundhog Club co-handler A.J. Dereume holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 133rd celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.
Groundhog Club co-handler A.J. Dereume holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 133rd celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.Read moreAP
  1. Above-normal temperatures in January:

  2. Boston: 9 degrees above normal

  3. Burlington, Vt.: 7.4 degrees above normal

  4. New York: 6.5 degrees above normal

  5. Chicago: 6.3 degrees above normal

  6. Philadelphia: 5.9 degrees above normal

Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast notwithstanding, the winter of 2019-20 indisputably has been a shadow of itself. And the higher-order mammals who forecast the weather say it is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

In fact, it might be time to issue an “Amber Alert” for winter, Judah Cohen, a scientist with Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Massachusetts, suggested Thursday.

All winter, models have consistently promised cold shots, behaving something like the SEPTA app on a snowy day: When you get to the station its says the train is three minutes late, then five, then 20. Then the train is canceled.

“I’m not complaining,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the government’s Climate Prediction Center, whose winter forecast did favor above-normal temperatures in much of the nation. He obviously doesn’t run a ski resort.

» READ MORE: How Pennsylvania ski resorts make fake snow to get by in warm winters like this one

Philadelphia’s official snow total through the end of January, 0.3 inches, was the lowest to date in 25 years, and only three other years were as snow-deprived through Jan. 31 in records dating to 1884. Snow deficits have been common throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, even in the Great Lakes snow belts.

» READ MORE: No one lives at the airport. So why is Philly’s snowfall measured there?

January averaged about 6 degrees above normal around here, and 9 in Boston. In the early going, February evidently is ready to play one-upmanship: The high in Philadelphia could reach 60 Tuesday.

Folklore has it that since groundhog Phil did not see his shadow this year, spring is around the corner.

On Sunday morning, thousands of people gathered in snowy conditions in Punxsutawney, Pa., about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, for the state’s annual Groundhog Day tradition: a weather prognostication from Punxsutawney Phil. When the groundhog’s interpreter proclaimed that Phil did not see his shadow — portending an early spring — the crowd erupted in cheers.

That marks the first time in the 134-year history of the tradition that Phil has predicted an early spring two years in a row, according to state officials. The 22-inch, 20-pound groundhog usually predicts six more weeks of winter (Phil has only predicted an early spring 20 times).

Whatever happened to the polar vortex?

It’s still very much there, doing what it’s been doing for millennia. It has been a major player, said Cohen, just not in the role it assumed in the winters in which it gained celebrity.

The vortex is a swirling cyclonic mass that allows cold air to build in the Arctic. On occasion some of that air breaks away and oozes deep into the United States riding a buckling jet stream. This winter, however, the vortex has been so strong that in effect it has been a cold-air dam.

» READ MORE: 'Suspiciously nice day' brings record-breaking heat — and concerns about climate change

The snow ‘cutters’

The Philadelphia region has been affected by its share of winter storms — it’s just on the wrong side of them for snow.

“A lot of these storms have been cutters," said Dave Dombek, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., so called because they “cut” to the west. "They’ve been heading up to the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley, west of the mountains.”

Winds circulate counterclockwise around centers of low pressure. Areas to the east — in this case that would be the likes of Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston — get warming, sometimes very warming, winds from the south.

An area of higher pressure, or storm-discouraging heavier air, has persisted over the Southeast, repelling snowmaking nor’easters, said Dombek. It has been quite warm down that way, save for the night of the falling iguanas on Jan. 22, when temperatures dropped to 40 in Miami.

» READ MORE: It was so cold in Miami, iguanas fell from trees

What about global warming?

“In this climate-change environment it’s been proving hard to get sustained cold,” said AER’s Cohen.

“The planet is warming. That’s indisputable," said Halpert. That’s one reason the climate center’s seasonal outlooks have tended to favor above-average temperatures.

Global temperatures have increased at the rate of about 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1981, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The 2019 global temperature was about 1.7 degrees higher than the 20th-century average, a difference of about 3%.

» READ MORE: Feds say world was 1.4 degrees warmer last year than in 20th century. But how on Earth is that measured?

But while the planet has less of it, it still has a generous supply of cold air available.

And while going warmer in a winter forecast generally is a safe bet, if you keep going with it, said Halpert, “some years you’re going to be woefully wrong.”

So it is going to snow again someday?

Snow isn’t all that frequent around here in any winter. On occasion a megastorm can be a showstopper, but officially Philadelphia has only five days a winter with snowfall of an inch or more.

“The fact that snow comes so infrequently, it has such a huge interannual variability,” said David. A. Robinson, a Rutgers University professor who has become an international go-to person on snow matters. In the winter of 2009-10, a record 78 inches was measured in Philadelphia, or 260 times what has fallen so far this winter.

» READ MORE: Plowed in or dug out: Where do we put it all?

By contrast, there were virtual snow shutouts in Philadelphia through Jan. 31 in 1898-90, 1972-72, and 1994-95.

“People say it never happens," Dombek said. “Sure it has.”

» READ MORE: How Pennsylvania ski resorts make fake snow to get by in warm winters like this one

On the plus sides

Along with energy-bill savings, this has been a great season for the aching backs of those who must shovel.

And with all that cold locked in by the North Pole, says Cohen, it should be a relatively good season for the build-back of Arctic ice.

The abject wimpiness has made a mess out of winter outlooks, but Cohen said his forecast for above-normal snowfall for the Northeast might have positive consequences.

Said Cohen: “You learn more from your failures than your successes.”