119 inches of snow one year, 33 the next: Meteorologists say Maine winters are too unpredictable to budget for
PORTLAND, Maine — Meteorologists on Monday said state and local road crews should be forgiven if they’re spending more than finance directors forecast this winter.
Not only is the current season among the snowiest and coldest in the last 10 years, those numbers can be almost impossible to budget accurately for from one year to the next, said meteorologist James Brown with the National Weather Service’s Gray office.
“Compared to normal, right now, we’re way above normal,” Brown said of this winter’s snowfall totals. “You don’t know year-to-year how things are going to turn out. You budget a certain amount based on past history. Some years it’s going to fall short, and some years it’s going to be plenty — but you just don’t know.”
The Maine Department of Transportation reported over the weekend it has spent nearly $10 million more on clearing snow and treating roads this winter than it usually does — spending $25.4 million so far this winter compared to its average seasonal expenditure of $15.7 million.
Meanwhile, officials from Maine’s major cities, such as Bangor and Portland, are saying they expect to finish the winter over budget for snow removal. In the private sector, retailers are reporting that they can’t keep up with demand for wood pellets.
In a region known for cold and snow this time of year, could those cases of high spending and low resources have been avoided with better planning?
Probably not, forecasters say.
Those who watch weather patterns most closely insisted Monday that even with Maine’s reputation, it would have been hard to see the severity of this winter coming.
“I don’t want to say that anybody did not manage [resources] properly,” said Bernie Rayno, an expert senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com and evening weatherman for Bangor ABC television affiliate WVII. “It’s the coldest we’ve seen since 2008-09, and it’s the snowiest we’ve had in three years.”
Rayno said Bangor has received 63.1 inches of snow since Dec. 1 — nearly reaching the seasonal average of 66.2 inches already, with March and April still to come.
“We’re already closing in on our seasonal total, but we have many, many weeks of winter still left,” he said. “You still have the ability to get big snows in early March and even April.”
Rayno also said Bangor has been 1.9 degrees colder this year than its normal winter temperature of 18.7 degrees, the coldest it’s been in at least a decade, and frigid enough to explain heating supply shortages or extra road work to deal with ice buildups.
In Portland, Brown of the National Weather Service said the city has seen even more of the white stuff — 78.8 inches, burying the city’s annual norm of 61.9 inches. Rayno added that Maine’s largest city is experiencing a winter about 2.5 degrees below normal, as well.
But perhaps more important than the severity of the current winter is the season’s recent history of unpredictability, the meteorologists said.
Using the Dec. 1-April 30 window, Bangor’s snowfall was 33 inches in 2011-12, just a year after the Queen City was entombed in 119 inches of snow, Rayno said.
Similarly in Portland, using the same five-month periods, snowfall totals fell from 78.6 inches in 2008-09 down to 37 inches in 2009-10, went back up to 80.2 inches in 2010-11, crashed to 37.7 inches in 2011-12, and then skyrocketed up to 94.7 inches last winter, he said.
And that yo-yo activity doesn’t even take into consideration the approximately 50-inch snow seasons from 2005 through 2007, which were sandwiched between two bookend 100-plus-inch winters on either side, said Rayno.
So despite what forecasters use as their statistical averages, those are typically products of big numbers one year and small numbers the next, as opposed to any consistent figures year-in and year-out, Rayno said.
“The best thing you can do is plan for normal,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s rarely normal.”
BDN staff reporters Nick McCrea and Tim Cox contributed to this story.