With temperatures in the 60s upon us and most ski areas closed, time to wrap things up for the season. So lets talk a little about what happened this winter.
One thing people will talk about, and most of us felt this winter, is that it was an above average winter in terms of precipitation. Unfortunately it was the wrong type of precipitation for us snow lovers as most of it fell as rain, especially during the middle of winter in January and February. Overall places like Minneapolis (where we have very accurate snow data) got around 140% of normal precipitation but only around 75% of snowfall. Here are a few maps that will make it a bit more clear how warm and wet we were, because those few degrees of above normal air temperature made the big difference.
The breakdown of monthly temperatures really shows why it felt like such a poor winter. During the months of January and February many places stayed 5-10ºF above normal, especially in February. This prevented almost everywhere from maintaining a snow pack, because of warm temperatures between storm systems and then rainfall onto of the snow.
So why did this all happen you ask. Before we get into a talk about climate, lets talk about the makeup of many of the low pressure systems we saw this winter. Most winters our region is effected over and over again by clippers coming out of Canada, with the occasional strong low pressure system moving across Montana and the Dakotas. These clippers usually bring less moisture, but keep cold air dominate over the region.
However, this year our weather was dominated by only smaller features moving across the Dakotas, with our larger storms being formed in the lee of the Rockies over the high plains of Kansas. These larger lows usually took a northeasterly direction that allowed them to advect Gulf of Mexico moisture and warmer tropical air into them as they moved towards the Great Lakes. Many of these lows also took a path directly across the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, leaving many areas in the easterly and southerly sectors of the low which are dominated more by warm air. What this lead to was us getting plenty of moisture almost every week, but most of it as the non-frozen variety. These gulf-air dominated systems also brought energy far enough north to bring some surprising thunderstorms to the region in February and March (see: earliest tornado in MN history this year).
Many have asked, is this the new normal for us, with warmer winters and less snowfall. This is a difficult one to answer. First as a note, climate is changes of our winters over many years, not the difference between snowstorm A and B this last year.
Our winters over the past couple of years are closer to the types of winters we saw during the 30s and 40s in the midwest, rather than the larger snowfall years of the 70s and 80s that everyone remembers. However, with that, we don’t see a decrease in the overall precipitation between these years. So how does this happen. As the climate has warmed over the past century, our region is expected to see more precipitation. During the mid-1900s, this meant that we started to see substantial snowfall totals since the increase in precipitation was happening while average temperatures were still below freezing.
Now over the past few decades, our temperatures started creeping above freezing during the winter months, meaning we have started seeing this bumper of moisture start to fall as rain. This doesn’t mean that we won’t see any large snowfall years ever again, but it means as our temperatures continue to climb and our average temperatures stay closer or above freezing, there is a better chance of seeing rain during the winter months. However, as I said before, these are seasonal changes and we will still see both snow and rain depending on each individual storm.
Overall, this was a pretty gloomy year for Midwest winter lovers. Fingers crossed for a snowier winter in 2017-2018!
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