AUSTIN (KXAN) — Winters in Central Texas are typically quite tolerable, but can occasionally be completely disruptive. Proven true in the past, it only takes a little bit of ice and snow to shut down the city for days.
One of the strongest El Niño patterns on record was largely responsible for causing the recent wet 24-month period across Central Texas. El Niño is the natural ocean cycle that leads to warmer than normal water in the eastern equatorial Pacific.
Its opposite, a weak La Niña pattern, has just formed. La Niña leads to ocean temperatures that are colder than normal in the eastern Pacific, taking the “storm track” north of Texas during the winter months, and traditionally leading to a milder winter.
Official winter outlooks from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center are in line with what a La Niña pattern traditionally brings Central Texas: warmer, drier than normal weather.
But over recent decades, our local temperature records do not exactly fit the trend.
KXAN’s First Warning Weather Team dug through the numbers from the past four winters that featured this weak La Niña pattern to get a better idea of what we might be in store for this winter. We found that daytime highs and overnight lows are both actually colder, on average, when we have this pattern in place. Austin also averages several more freezing cold nights, increasing the odds of icy roads.
The winter of ’84/’85, a weak La Niña year, still stands as Austin’s snowiest winter on record. A staggering total of 8.7 inches of snow fell in Austin. KXAN tape archives show residents breaking out the skis in northwest Austin and using anything they can find as a makeshift sled.
Alicia Badeusz was just a kid that winter, but still remembers it well.
“It kind of felt like Christmas morning because you wake up, never see snow, and your yard is covered in it,” Badeusz recalls. “Hey, no school? So we’re going to get to go outside and play? And that’s immediately what everyone in the cul-de-sac that I lived in did.”
She passed the time with her best friend, her neighbor in Oak Hill, with snowball fights, snow angels and life-sized snowmen.
“I’m born and raised in Austin. I’m not accustomed to that,” Badeusz said.
In the meantime Ron Mullen, the mayor of Austin that winter, had a duty to uphold.
“I think it was much more harsh than people thought it was going to be,” Mullen said. “When the snowflakes started coming down, we stopped the meeting and let everybody start going home early. Of course, some of us didn’t do that because we didn’t believe it was going to be that big of a deal. And it ultimately was a very big deal.”
Once he headed home, the mayor joined Austinites out in the cold, pushing cars by hand up a snow-packed Lamar Boulevard.
“That day, anybody who was out probably saw somebody lose control,” Mullen remembers.
But that day, Mullen says the true spirit of the city came out.
“The people on Lamar were stuck for so many hours, folks that lived around there came out and started serving them hot coffee and hot chocolate. I think it was an attitude of helping each other. That’s what made me so pleased, that people were out helping each other,” Mullen said.
Going back to the 1980s, we found that weak La Niña winters have brought an average of twice as many snowy, icy days as we see in a typical winter (two days versus an average of one).
In February 1996, huge icicles clung to buildings and kids had to brave slippery sidewalks across Central Texas.
A major two-day ice storm in December 2000 shut down schools and businesses, causing more than 300 car crashes and leaving 90,000 people in Austin without power.
In February 2012, big flakes were flying in Bertram, while sleet pellets made a racket in Austin.
With a similar weather pattern in place this winter, snow and ice are a possibility.
We asked the former mayor what his advice would be for residents as we enter the winter months, having been through the snowiest winter Austin has ever seen.
“Have some extra food, have some extra supplies,” Mullen advises. “I do in my house, I think everybody should. Because you never know what can happen.”
And Badeusz thinks we should enjoy it while we can.
“Wake up the next morning and it was gone, it was like a dream,” Badeusz said. “Did it happen? I don’t know.”
While a trend toward colder, icier winters is what we found with this pattern in recent decades, it’s important to remember that La Niña is only one factor that influences winter weather in Texas. Other natural, multi-year cycles can affect our winter weather as well:
- Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO)
- Climate cycle that affects the sea surface temperature of the North Atlantic Ocean. While the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) cycle takes place on a 3-7 year timescale, this is slower, taking place over multiple decades
- The AMO is currently in a positive phase, which can lead to drier weather in Texas
- Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)
- A similarly slow pattern of ocean temperature variation in the Pacific Ocean, but instead of being a single mode of variability like ENSO is, the PDO is the sum of several processes with different dynamic origins
- The PDO is currently in a negative phase, which can lead to warmer, drier weather in Texas
You can read day-by-day descriptions of past winter storms in the KXAN Weather Diary, featuring detailed weather for every day of the past 20 years.