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Not just in your head: Data show that yes, this winter has been historically lame

No snow
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
The average snow depth in the Twin Cities, October through January, was 1.2 inches, which is half the historic average.

What happened to winter?

If you live near the Twin Cities, forget snowshoes this year — there’s not enough snow on the ground these days to need them. Skis are forlorn after a couple laps on the trail, and the ice is thinning while skates never left the garage. So much for most outdoor winter recreation, unless you count trying to stay upright on icy sidewalks.

It certainly hasn’t felt like a winter wonderland in the Twin Cities this year. But has this winter really seen less snow than normal? Yes and no.

Slightly less than average snowfall

Snowfall — the amount of snow that fell from the sky — has been a bit below average across the months of October through January in the Twin Cities, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s data from the weather station at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In that time period, 26.5 inches of snow has fallen this year, while the average for that time period from 1970-present is 31.7 inches.

Twin Cities snowfall
Except for in December, the Twin Cities have seen snowfall levels below the 1970-present average each month this winter, according to data from a weather station at MSP International Airport. In February so far, the Twin Cities have received 0.3 inches of snow -- far below the average of 8.7 inches. Chart only shows data for full months in current year.
Source: NOAA

But most of that snow fell in December and January, while both November and February (so far), are far below average. Unless snowflakes start falling soon, February is looking very low-snowfall, with just 0.3 inches of the stuff.

So we're a bit below the average amount of snow to-date this year,  and the snow we've gotten has largely been concentrated in those two midwinter months.

Snow doesn’t stick

Part of the reason this winter feels so unseasonably un-snowy is because the snow that has fallen hasn’t stuck around. The average snow depth in the Twin Cities, October through January this year was 1.2 inches, which is less than half the historic average, 2.8 inches. So far this month, the average snow depth is zero.

Average snow depth in the Twin Cities, October-April
The average snow depth in the Twin Cities has been below the 1970-present average each month, partly due to warmer than average temperatures. Snow depth for the current year only includes full months.
Source: NOAA

Partly, it’s because some of the storms that have passed through the state have lost moisture before they got here, said Tony Zaleski, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Chanhassen.

But it’s also because of unseasonably warm temperatures, said Mark Seeley, a University of Minnesota professor of soil, water and climate and longtime weather commentator on Minnesota Public Radio. October through January, the average temperature in the Twin Cities was more than five degrees warmer than average.

Twin Cities average temperature
This winter, the average temperature in the Twin Cities each month has been above the 1970-present average, according to data from a NOAA weather station at MSP International Airport. Data for Feb. 2017 includes only Feb. 1-15.
Source: NOAA

That means some of the precipitation that in colder years might have fallen as snow manifested as rain.

It also means more of that thaw-in-the-day, freeze-at-night phenomenon that results in icy roads.

“It’s been a terrible winter for ice — lots of accidents, pedestrian and vehicle,” Seeley said.

Seasonal average snow depth in the Twin Cities, 1969-2017
Average snow depths from October through April in the Twin Cities are erratic, but the last few years have been low. Data for 2016–17 are through February 15.
Source: NOAA

Plenty of snow up north

While the southern two-thirds of the state have been less snowy than average, things are looking pretty normal — or above normal — up north.

NOAA
Thanks to cold temperatures, northern Minnesota remains duly snowy.

Northern Minnesota — especially northeast Lake, Cook and St. Louis counties — tends to be snowier than the rest of the state due to colder temperatures, and its location more often in pathway of Alberta Clippers that blow snowy weather in from the Canadian Rockies, Seeley said. And this winter’s no exception.

International Falls, MN snowfall
International Falls, in northeastern Minnesota, has seen snowfall above the 1970-present average most months this winter. So far in February, it's received 11.4 inches of snow — above the February average of 11.2. For current year snowfall, this chart only shows data for full months.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

Up in International Falls, in northeastern Minnesota, snow depth so far this season is average, and snowfall is above average.

Warming winters

Talk to just about any long time Minnesotan, and they’ll tell you winters just aren’t like they used to be.

While there’s certainly exceptions — like the polar vortex winter in 2013-14 — they’d be right, Seeley says: winters have gotten warmer and less snowy on average.

Six of the 10 warmest December through Februaries since 1895 have been in the last 20 years, he said. Barring some really cold weather in the next couple weeks, this winter’s likely to join that ranking.

“Winter is the season of the year that’s warmed the most in Minnesota,” Seeley said.

How do things look in the next couple months?

What does this mean for the rest of the winter — and the rest of the year?

random acts of data logo

Anything goes in March.

“March is our most erratic snow month. Here in the metro area we’ve had anywhere from 1 inch to 40 inches in March, which is a pretty wide spread,” Seeley said. But if warmer temperatures continue to prevail as weather models predict, he said, March could be more wet than snowy.

As we look ahead to the growing season, the state’s in pretty good shape, ground moisture-wise, despite the low-snow winter, Seeley said.

“Fortunately, the bank account of moisture stored in the soil is pretty robust,” he said. “Most of our soil’s filled up with adequate storage, so our farmers can look forward to planting this spring into a seed bed that’s probably going to have plenty of root zone moisture.”

Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul and news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to data@minnpost.com with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”

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Comments (1)

Simple solution

If you want snow and ice, and extreme cold, drive to Northern Minnesota, as people do in the summer to their cabins. With 60 degree days in Fdbruary, we just get more beautiful spring days that we grew up with. We can adjust.