The fact that the calendar says it’s April and therefore spring means that temperatures should be thawing, daffodils should be blooming, storms should give way to sunshine and rainbows, and you can retire your winter coat for at least the next six months.
The hard truth, however, is that that winter coat isn't going anywhere, at least throughout most of the United States. April showers might lead to May flowers, but across the country, those showers are snowy in nature.
You thought it was over, huh? Nope.
Between April 4 and April 12, folks in the Midwest and along the Eastern coast from the mid-Atlantic up through New England will have the obnoxious spring gift of a winter storm pounding the region with freezing air, snow, and generally miserable conditions that will make you squint very hard at your calendar.
And before you say that this is abnormal, let’s take a step back to note that snowy Aprils, while frustrating due to their calendar/temperature mismatch, are actually not abnormal at all.
“It’s not uncommon,” climatologist Brian Brettschneider of the University of Alaska Fairbanks said flatly. “It’s not a big deal.”
Here’s what’s going on in this most recent spate of cold weather: A trio of storm systems are developing, plunging the country into below-freezing range and reminding you that winter hasn't finished quite yet, despite the calendar saying otherwise.
But how common are April snowshowers? More common than you might think, Brettschneider said.
“In April, there’s stormy events that bring snow to some places,” Brettschneider said, pointing to the East Coast and Midwest as especially vulnerable regions for late-season snow.
Weird snow patterns don’t “make any statement about climate change or global warming,” Brettschneider noted. He also added that declarations of this being a result of a polar vortex should be tempered. “It’s one of those key terms that are used differently in a vernacular way [compared to a meteorological one],” he said. “Polar vortexes are events in the stratosphere many miles up and normally felt between January and early March. What’s going on now isn’t really related to a polar vortex event.”
Brettschneider’s research shows two important things about spring snow. First of all, just because it hits 70 earlier in the season doesn’t mean that snow won’t come. In 2016, he collected data from nearly 500 locations between January 1 and June 15 of 1981 and 2015 after the first 70-degree day of the calendar year. He found that that first 70-degree day means practically nothing for snow, regardless of geography: On average, in Atlanta, there was still about an inch of snow that fell after the warmth, a little over 2 inches in Chicago and Detroit, 3 inches in Raleigh, 5.4 inches in St. Louis, 9 inches in Amarillo.
While it might seem odd that southern cities tend to get more snow after their first 70-degree day, it could be because they hit that hot threshold a lot earlier in the season when there’s a lot more time for snowy conditions to still occur. Lesson: Just because it feels balmy one day doesn't mean winter weather is over.
Brettschneider’s big takeaway on late-season snow came a few years prior, in 2014, when he measured snow that fell after April 1.
“Every year when a late-season snowfall blankets some portion of the nation, many wonder exactly how unusual it is,” he wrote at the time on his blog. “In short, the answer is that late-season snows are the norm, not the exception.”
The gist: About two-thirds of the country experiences snowfall between April and June.
So, yes—snow sucks after April 1, when a lot of signs all over the country end snow removal parking restrictions. But snow is very much normal in April, and while it makes for an annoying, cabin fever-worthy stretch of time that makes it seem as if winter is never going to end, it's absolutely normal.
And the fact that we’ve gotten so many back-to-back nor’easters on the East Coast isn’t necessarily odd either. “It's uncommon but not unprecedented,” Brettschneider said. “When you get one, you tend to get a parade of them.” Having four in a row as we did a few weeks ago, though? “That’s not typical."
Brettschneider’s got some gloomy news for those in the Midwest/Eastern band suffering through crappy weather forecasts: Computer models show that we might be in for another “event” (read: nasty winter storm) just a few days after this weekend’s set of storms.
“Are we out of the woods yet? Probably not,” Brettschneider said. But there’s a glimmer of sunny spring hope on the horizon: Should a storm of the same power waltz through these regions in the next few weeks, it’s next to impossible that the systems will generate snow.
But for now, it’s not time quite yet to pack away the cushy sweaters and snow boots. “[April snowstorms] have happened and will happen again,” Brettschneider said.