As the year's first snow moved into the Black Hills this weekend, meteorologists are predicting the coming winter will be colder and snowier than normal.

Based on weather patterns in the Pacific and Arctic oceans, the winter forecast is calling for chilly weather and average to above-average levels of precipitation in western South Dakota.

But while still worse than average, experts say the winter in the Rapid City area probably won't be as cold and snowy as last year.

"We seem to be in a trend of a little bit harsher winters," said Dennis Todey, the South Dakota state climatologist. "Last year was quite a bit out there. I would see us moderating a little bit, but probably still falling on the cooler side, and maybe a little bit more in the way of precipitation."

The average winter temperature for Rapid City is a high of around 37 degrees and a low of around 12 degrees. This winter could be as much as three to four degrees cooler on average.

"That doesn't sound like a lot, but when you average three months together, it's noticeable," said Matthew Bunkers, the science and operations manager at the National Weather Service station in Rapid City.

Average winter temperatures in the 30s obscure some days where it is warmer - and other days where it doesn't get above zero degrees.

"That could be the case for several spells this winter," said Paul Walker, senior meteorologist with Accuweather.

Predicting the weather months in advance is always an uncertain art, and several meteorologists said the Black Hills weather can be particularly difficult to forecast long-term.

"We're right on the edge of the storm track," said Bunkers, referring to the path winter weather sweeping down from the north will take. "When you're right on the gradient, you can easily teeter one way or the other."

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For example, Bunkers said that the Southern Hills could very well see a warmer, drier winter than normal. Northwestern South Dakota, on the other hand, projects to be right in the path of the winter storms and to be significantly colder and snowier.

Depending on whether the storms veer a little bit to the south or the north, Rapid City could catch the brunt of winter or largely escape.

"I would say I'm about 70 percent confident we're going to be on the cool side," said Todey. "I don't have a lot of confidence right now in the precipitation (predictions). Too many other factors are involved win precipitation that can really mess with us."

Areas to the north and east of Rapid City are expected to be much snowier and colder.

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"There will be storms that will drop from Alberta to down into the Northern Plains, and then move across the Great Lakes," Walker said. "I think the heaviest snows will be further off to the east. (Rapid City) will certainly get the cold weather that follows those clippers."

The driving factor behind the projections of a cold winter is the La Nina effect in the Pacific Ocean. La Nina, a cooling of the water in the Pacific, tends to cause stronger winters in the northern United States.

Last winter saw a very strong La Nina, contributing to cold temperatures approaching records. The La Nina effect faded over the summer but has since resumed, leading meteorologists to expect more cold weather.

"The main uncertainty lies in how strong the La Nina is going to be," Bunkers said. "Right now we're expecting a more moderate La Nina. But the unpredictability of La Ninas ... has historically been difficult."

Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or david.montgomery@rapidcityjournal.com.


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