Looking out their windows as the snow began to fall, Nashvillians might have expected some minor inconveniences — keeping the kids home from school a day or two, a little extra caution on the roads — but not much else. As it turned out, Metro Nashville Public Schools, as well as those in many surrounding suburbs, were closed for a straight week. Businesses and restaurants changed their hours, if they opened at all. And what seemed like relatively minor winter weather basically shut down the city.
According to c, that’s because one key member of the team that reacts to such weather seriously dropped the ball.
The guilty party? Mother Nature.
“Usually, with most snows around here, the state and Metro do their part with plowing and Mother Nature takes care of the rest,” he said. “This time around, she wasn’t on our side.”
Typically, when Mother Nature dumps a good snow on our city, she turns around and helps clean it up with some sunlight. But recently she’s been no help when it comes to getting Nashville up and running again.
“Overall, I don’t think the state and Metro did a bad job. I think they had everyone out there working as hard as they could,” Neese said. “But nothing will clear a road like Mother Nature.”
According to Neese, there are two scenarios that are most common when it comes to Nashville and winter weather. Either temperatures are warm before the snow falls, meaning the ground isn’t frozen and the snow won’t stick. Or, if temperatures are below freezing when it begins to snow, they don’t stay that way for long.
Neither has been the case recently. Instead, freezing temperatures before and after snowfall have slowed the cleanup process — the perfect conditions, Neese explained, for an extended interruption of Nashville’s daily routine.
“Everything stuck because the ground was frozen, and we stayed below freezing for the rest of the week,” he said. “That is the setup that gives us the most problems and keeps kids out of school the longest. It doesn’t happen a lot.”
He’s right. According to data from the National Weather Service, the set of conditions that Neese described hardly ever happens here at all.
From 1971 to the present, the average temperature for January in Nashville is 37.4 degrees. To date, the average temperature for January 2011 sits right at freezing: 32.88 degrees.
Temperatures during the week of Jan. 8-14 — the week Metro schools were closed for five straight days — were even colder, about 12 degrees lower than January’s historical average.
The next part of the equation, of course, is snow. In that category, too, January 2011 is outdoing itself. According to the NWS, Nashville’s average January snowfall, also from 1971 to present, is 2.97 inches. As of this writing, the NWS has recorded 3.7 inches of snowfall this month. By the time you read this, more snow will have already fallen.
As for a greater culprit in all this, the NWS points to Arctic Oscillation.
As it is explained on the NWS website, Arctic Oscillation is “a weather pattern in which atmospheric pressure at polar and middle latitudes fluctuates between negative and positive phases. The negative phase allows cold air to routinely plunge out of Canada and into the Tennessee Valley.”
A negative phase, similar to the one that granted Nashville a rare white Christmas, reappeared in early January, causing the snowstorm and other conditions that gave Nashville students an unexpected vacation.
In short, if Nashville seemed unprepared for this winter’s gifts, it’s because this just isn’t how it’s supposed to happen here. The friendly quips from transplanted northerners around town are generally true: It’s likely that a similar storm would have caused less of a disturbance even a few hours north. Should this month’s rare conditions become the norm, Neese said, Nashville might have to adjust.
“Areas north of us that are used to more snow are equipped to deal with it better,” he said. “If over the next few years we had more and more situations occur like this, we might have to start adding plows or doing something different. But right now, we have to rely on Mother Nature.”
As for the missed school days, MNPS has a plan — which the district laid out Wednesday — for how to make up the time: They’ll use one day, Feb. 21, that was planned off, and they’ll tack the rest onto the end of the school year.