What is the probability of a white Christmas in Madison?

Believe it or not, the National Weather Service has criteria for declaring a Christmas white: If there is at least 1 inch of snow on the ground at 6 a.m. on Christmas Day, the year has registered a white Christmas.

As might be expected, the probability of this condition being met varies widely across the state of Wisconsin. In the far north, the probability exceeds 90% and approaches a certainty in some locations, while in the south the historic probability runs at about 40%, which might strike Madisonians as unexpectedly low.

Last year, we had a fairly fresh 6 inches of snow on the ground on Christmas morning, courtesy of a crippling storm that affected the eastern half of the United States just days before the holiday. In fact, during the past 25 years we have done better than average in terms of white Christmases, as 15 of the past 25 years — 60% — have qualified. While 2004 met exactly that 1-inch threshold, both 2008 and 2000 welcomed Christmas Day with 15 inches of snow at Dane County Regional Airport, the latter in what was the snowiest December in Madison history.

Unfortunately, it appears this year will not qualify. Just a week out there is nothing promising in the forecast — that is, no storms on the horizon. This immediate circumstance, coupled with a robust El Niño ongoing in the equatorial Pacific Ocean may well doom any chance of a white Christmas this year — and may extend the unwelcome snowlessness through a good deal of the winter.

Typical winter weather patterns during El Niño. Credit: NOAA

So, we can hope for some snow before next Monday, but it is probably best to proceed toward the holiday with a realistic outlook in that regard.

Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month. Send them your questions at stevea@ssec.wisc.edu or jemarti1@wisc.edu.

Category: History, Seasons

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