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The 2015-2016 Winter Storms

With the release of the 2016-2017 Winter Storm Names, we decided to look back on last year’s winter storms. Winter Weather Expert Tom Niziol reflects on the overall season as well as the unique traits of the twenty-two named winter storms.

The winter of 2015-16 had to be considered very mild from most points of view. A quick look at the 3-month temperature rankings for the U.S. (below) shows just how mild a winter it was. For much of the country east of the Rockies, meteorological winter overall was in the Top 10 in 121 years of record. Even more interesting is the fact that the Northeast states saw their warmest winter overall on record! This was in stark contrast to the previous winter when much of the East was reeling from several months of very cold temperatures (below), while the West was seeing its warmest winter on record.

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The mild winter of 2015-16 didn’t mean however that there were no winter storms. In fact, there was enough cold air around at certain points to generate 22 named storms for the season. That matches the winter of 2014-15 total number of named storms but lags a bit behind our first two years of naming storms, 2013-14 and 2012-13 when there were 26 and 27 respectively (below).

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I find it very interesting to note the pace at which each season’s named storms occurred. With only a small data set in mind, you can readily see how the bigger impact storms start up in November for the most part, then there seems to be a break in the action somewhere in the second half of December through mid-January before really cranking up in February. Winter finally winds down from major winter storms in March.

Below are the 2015-16 tracks of named winter storms. The season began in November and continued through Mid-April. It is tough to detect any type of pattern or preference to storm tracks looking at the season as a whole. However, if we look at certain timeframes there are some interesting features that do appear. There seems to be 3 general areas where storms developed or originated; the Pacific, the Four Corners/lee of the Rockies, and the Southeast.  

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Last winter occurred under a very strong El Nino pattern, something we had not seen in the previous three winters we have named winter storms. Although no El Nino winter is exactly like, there are some general patterns that do evolve. For this past winter most forecasts suggested a warmer than normal weather pattern for much of the northern half of the US.  The Southwest was expected to see more precipitation overall with an expectation of a more active Southern jet stream. As we saw in earlier images, the US as a whole was quite mild overall for the winter. Upon closer inspection however, early on in the November through December timeframe our named winter storm tracks were confined more to the West. In the January through February time frame the pattern of storm tracks shifted significantly to the East. The shift in storm tracks, as would be expected, matched very well with the overall change in the Upper Air pattern.

Below are charts of the 4 graphics for the November-December (N-D) time frame and the January-February (J-F) time frame. Each set includes the 500mb height, anomaly, surface temperature anomaly and the named storm tracks. There are several points to make for these time frames.

The N-D time frame was dominated by a deep trough in the West as highlighted by the 500mb flow. The 500mb height anomalies really point that out well. In contrast, the “higher” heights in the East were reflected in much warmer temperatures overall in that time frame. This type of pattern would suggest more “storminess” as well as colder temperatures in the West, resulting in more wintry weather. As a result, we ended up with several named winter storms that originated in the West and moved across the Plains to the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes in the N-D timeframe. Those tracks match pretty well in general with the overall large scale troughiness that existed for this portion of the season. In contrast, there essentially was NO winter in the East in the N-D time frame, mainly due to the exceptional warmth. There were likely many Lows that tracked through the East, however it just wasn’t cold enough to produce snow from these Lows.  

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As we headed into the J-F time frame the Upper Air Pattern across North America changed significantly with the overall western trough replaced with a ridge. Again, by contrast, in the East a deep trough set up across eastern N. America. This pattern favored a colder atmosphere and storms that tracked through that cold air produced snow. No fewer than 5 storms tracked up and off the Northeast Coast of the U.S. Four of the five tracks were far enough offshore to impact a rather small area, but several million residents. The fifth storm, Winter Storm Jonas, to be discussed a bit later, took a very favorable track that brought severe winter weather and record snowfall to the largest metropolitan area of the U.S.  

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The most notable snowstorm by far in the 2015-16 season was Winter Storm Jonas which occurred on January 20-24. This epic storm shattered snowfall records across the Mid-Atlantic Region of the U.S. impacting tens of millions of people. That storm, along with the other 21 storms of the 2015-16 season, is summarized individually below, enjoy!!  

Winter Storm Ajax
Winter Storm Bella
Winter Storm Cara
Winter Storm Delphi
Winter Storm Echo
Winter Storm Ferus
Winter Storm Goliath
Winter Storm Hera
Winter Storm Ilias
Winter Storm Jonas
Winter Storm Kayla
Winter Storm Lexi
Winter Storm Mars
Winter Storm Nacio
Winter Storm Olympia
Winter Storm Petros
Winter Storm Quo
Winter Storm Regis
Winter Storm Selene
Winter Storm Troy
Winter Storm Ursula
Winter Storm Vexo

Join the Discussion


  1. I wonder if the “break” in winter storm activity in late December / early January is just a short-term trend that will get averaged out after we have 10-20 more years worth of data. It will be interesting to see if we get a lot more storms IN that period in the next few years, or if the trend continues, and if so, what’s the physical reason for it?

  2. I’m not understanding the controversy about naming the storms. It draws attention to a major snow storm, making those in it’s path take a little more notice, think, “Oh, it’s not just another storm, I’d better stock up.” And really, what is the harm of naming a storm? I can’t think of any.

    1. No, naming winter storms has essential purposes. For example, it allows us to provide affirmative communication (e.g., lifesaving information) to those in the path of those winter storms. For instance, we can distinguish one named winter storm from another in the future. In addition, it uses social media as a tool to spread the word. Furthermore, we do the same thing for tropical systems (e.g., tropical storms, hurricanes). It is that simple. Do you understand now?

      1. Another point is, it’s a lot easier to refer to “Winter Storm Nemo” than to have to say “the blizzard that hit the northeast on February 8-9, 2013.” And sometimes, there are multiple storms affecting different parts of the country at the same time, in which case the names make it a lot easier to distinguish which one you’re talking about.

  3. Like hurricanes, if a winter storm does extensive damage, will that name be retired?

    1. AT this point we do not retire names. However, we are not averse to going back to review those big storms to determine if we might retire some names in the future.

    1. Ahhhh, I think we will move toward other names as we go into the next few seasons. Not sure exactly what that will look like but we are no doubt running out of Mythological names after 5 years, so I will keep you updated. Thanks for an excellent question catman !!

  4. Before the nay-sayers and critics arrive, I just want to say that I like the winter storm names. It helps me track each individual storm and with social media, the hashtag helps to pass along pertinent information to those in the path of these storms. Keep up the good work.

      1. Dr. Tom Niziol, I have supported the concept of naming winter storms since the very beginning. I wish we started naming winter storms ten years ago. This endeavor has essential purposes. For example, it allows us to provide affirmative communication (e.g., lifesaving information) to those in the path of those winter storms. For instance, we can distinguish one named winter storm from another in the future. In addition, it uses social media as a tool to spread the word. Furthermore, we do the same thing for tropical systems (e.g., tropical storms, hurricanes). Keep up the stupendous prowess with this concept. #thisistotallyessential 😀

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