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Most Extreme Weather Patterns for This Winter

Meteorologist Danielle Banks takes a look at some of the most extreme weather patterns to watch out for this winter.

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There are several weather patterns that capture the full attention of meteorologists in winter.

These weather patterns can result in major snow and ice storms and also usher in the most frigid air of the season.

Extreme winter weather conditions, including crippling snow and ice storms and deadly cold waves, affect parts of the United States every winter.

To anticipate these events, forecasters look for certain large-scale weather patterns that can sometimes signal the arrival of extreme winter weather conditions.

(MORE: Winter Storm Central)

Here are a few of the weather patterns to watch for this winter.

1.) East Coast Snowstorm Pattern
When examining the potential for a blockbuster East Coast winter storm, meteorologists monitor an index called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The index has a positive and negative phase, and as its name implies, it oscillates between those phases to various degrees over periods of days or weeks.

To be clear, the NAO is just one factor in the grand scheme of forecasting, but when it slips into a deeply negative state, East Coast snow-loving weather geeks begin to salivate.

The area of blocking high pressure near Greenland locks in a southward dip in the jet stream across the eastern states when the NAO is in its negative phase. This leads to persistent cold temperatures and the potential for East Coast snowstorms.

During a negative phase of the NAO in the colder months of the year, the jet stream dips southward over the eastern United States where it may lock in for a lengthy period of time. This is due to what meteorologists call atmospheric blocking. In the case of a negative NAO, the block often takes the form of a strong bubble of high pressure near Greenland.

Depending on the orientation of that jet stream dip, and the potency and evolution of disturbances traversing through it, one or more major snowstorms can spin up and impact some part of the East Coast or Atlantic Canada in a negative NAO pattern.

This is because the blocking alluded to in the NAO negative phase allows intensifying low-pressure systems to crawl up near or just off the Eastern Seaboard rather than scooting harmlessly out to sea.

A recent example of this occurred in mid-January 2016 when the NAO slipped into a negative phase for about two weeks. Coinciding with the plummeting NAO index was Winter Storm Jonas, which buried the mid-Atlantic and Northeast with record-breaking snow totals that were measured in feet.

All of this being said, the Northeast can still see significant snowstorms even without a negative NAO.

2.) The Arctic Express
Forecasters look to Alaska, Canada’s Arctic region and even Siberia for signs of bitterly cold air masses building during the heart of winter.

Highlighted by the ring and shaded pink and purple is an arctic air mass that descended southward into the U.S. from near the North Pole during February 2016.

Arctic air masses from those source regions don’t always pour south of the Canadian border when they develop, but when they do, the continental U.S. usually experiences its most extreme cold outbreaks of the winter.

The frigid air from those regions is typically dislodged when the jet stream builds northward over western North America. As a result, a southward plunge of the jet stream sweeps across the central and eastern United States, ushering in the shivering, and in some cases, subzero temperatures.

The most extreme and long-lasting cold weather patterns in the central and eastern states coincide with the aforementioned negative phase of the NAO.

When the NAO is negative, the same atmospheric blocking described in the section above keeps a pipeline of arctic air entrenched east of the Rockies. This can lead to bone-chilling temperatures that remain below average for more than a week.

(MORE: 5 Things to Know About Arctic Cold Fronts)

3.) Long-Lasting West Coast Atmospheric Rivers
One of the most extreme weather patterns for the West Coast during winter is an atmospheric river.

Cabins buried by snow at Mammoth Lakes, California, in January 2017. (Marc Monney/Instagram)

An atmospheric river is a narrow plume of moisture extending into the tropics or subtropics that Pacific storms systems can tap into as they plow inland. The atmospheric river provides extra juice to storm systems taking aim at the coasts of Washington, Oregon and/or California. Sometimes the extra moisture can be overwhelming, with heavy rain causing flooding while feet of snow pile up in higher terrain.

Fortunately, atmospheric river events can typically be forecast beforehand thanks to satellite data providing evidence of their development. Computer models then use the satellite-based information to give forecasters information on the magnitude and duration of a particular event.

One of the most potent atmospheric river events to hit the West Coast in years happened in January 2017.

More than 10 feet of snow fell in the higher elevations of the Lake Tahoe region during a seven-day period. In the lower elevations, flooding rainfall affected parts of California and western Nevada. Some locations in California saw more than two feet of rain.

Another potent atmospheric river event then clobbered California with additional flooding in February 2017.

4.) Expansive Ice Storms
Major ice storms are among the most high-impact winter weather events. They’re destructive to trees and power lines and can bring travel to a standstill.

Some of the most expansive ice storms east of the Rockies develop in a weather pattern easily recognized by meteorologists.

Typically this setup features arctic air that is fed by a northerly wind near the earth’s surface. This cold air source is then overrun by mild, moist air ushered in on southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico.

The jet stream sends disturbances over the top of this battleground between cold and mild air, adding additional lift to the atmosphere. The result is a large swath of precipitation that can extend for hundreds of miles in a west-to-east fashion.

Depending on the intensity and longevity of the freezing rain that develops, impacts can range from nuisance to crippling in any given location.

An example of a major ice storm of this type occurred in January 2009. A long swath of states from Oklahoma to Maryland saw at least a quarter inch of icing, and some locations saw destructive accumulations of an inch or more.

Particularly hard hit were Kentucky and northern Arkansas. For Kentucky, it caused the largest power outage in the state’s history with 609,000 homes and businesses in the dark.

(MORE: The Nation’s Worst Ice Storms)

Damage in northern Arkansas from the 2009 ice storm. (weather.com photos user patpie)

5.) Lake-Effect Snow Machine
Lake-effect snow downwind of the Great Lakes is a common occurrence from late-fall through the heart of winter.

The ideal jet-stream pattern for generating heavy lake-effect snow.

Sometimes these events are short-lived, while others can pelt the same areas for days at a time.

Meteorologists take extra notice when a familiar setup for heavy lake-effect snow is projected by forecast-guidance tools. The pattern features a sharp, persistent southward plunge of the jet stream anchored over the eastern U.S. by a gyre of low pressure over or near Canada’s Hudson Bay.

In this pattern, repeated rounds of cold air spill over the Great Lakes, manufacturing bands of heavy lake-effect snow that can persist for several days, in spots.

Snowfall amounts measured in feet are typical during lake-effect snow events featuring this long-lived setup, particularly east of Lakes Erie and Ontario.

One of the most extreme situations occurred over a 10-day period from Feb. 3-12, 2007, when an incredible 141 inches of snow was measured in Redfield, New York, about 50 miles northeast of Syracuse.

(MORE: The Great Lakes Amazing Snow Records)

Left: A giant snow pile is left in the wake of the February 2007 lake-effect snowstorm. Right: Snowfall totals from the Feb. 3-12, 2007 lake-effect snowstorm in the Lake Ontario snowbelt. (AP/NWS-Buffalo)

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