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After a pretty below-average December and January, February is close to setting a Twin Cities snow record

It was actually a warmer-than-average, drier-than-average year. Then February happened.

South beach of Lake Harriet
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Have you noticed it’s been snowy lately?
It’s starting to feel like we’re stuck in a snowglobe. One that someone picks up and gives a good shake every couple days, leaving messy piles of snow tumbling down to wreak havoc on school, work and travel plans.

In the last three weeks, the Twin Cities have seen double-digit windchills, freezing rain, 4 inches of snow followed by 6 inches of snow, another 6 inches, and then another nearly 6 inches more before the roads were even clear from the last weather event.

By the end of Tuesday, the 22 inches of snow that fell in February in the Twin Cities put the region inches away from a February snowfall record. And we’re only halfway through the month.

It feels unusual, to see so much weather like this in so few days. Is it?

Kind of unusual

Yes and no, says Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climate Office.

Up until late January, Minnesota had seen above average temperatures and, in the Twin Cities, only about 10 inches of snow all season, Blumenfeld said.

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It’s an El Niño year, so warmer weather isn’t a huge surprise. In this type of weather pattern, which happens every three to five years, air and water down by the equator warms faster than usual. That can have profound effects on weather even thousands of miles away, meaning warmer winters for Minnesota, typically.

Average snowfall at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by month
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

But El Niño patterns can be disrupted by more immediate weather patterns.

“Even in really strong (El Niño) winters, (with) a little bit of an interruption… winter sort of takes hold and you wouldn’t know it was an El Niño winter at all,” Blumenfeld said.

Enter the Alberta clipper pattern responsible for sending icy air and snow to Minnesota in the last few weeks.

“This is a common type of pattern in the middle of Alberta, where you have cold air in place and these weather systems race through the region on the jetstream, flowing at 100 or 150 miles per hour,” Blumenfeld said.

Usually, though, the storms come out of the prairie provinces of Canada. This time, they’re coming from the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

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“What’s a little unusual is we’ve been stuck in this pattern for a few weeks, and they’re not coming out of Canada,” Blumenfeld said.

It’s not uncommon for Minnesota to get 4 inches to 6 inches of snow in one go. It is a bit odd to be getting those kinds of snowfalls at such regular intervals, though, Blumenfeld said.

This type pattern often brings frequent snows, but it’s usually just 2 inches or 3 inches at a time.

“On one hand, it’s been extraordinary … this rapid pace of medium to high-impact weather systems has been something most of us don’t have a lot of experience with (in) such a short amount of time,” Blumenfeld said. “On the other hand, when you stand back, there’s nothing historically significant about it.”

Usually, December and January are snowier in the Twin Cities than February, averaging 10.3 inches and 10.2 inches of snow, respectively, while February averages 8.7 inches (granted, it’s a couple days shorter than December and January, so there’s less time for it to snow). So far this year, the Twin Cities have seen more than double the average, at 21.9 inches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (all snowfalls in this story are measured at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). The record setting February, in 1962, saw 26.5 inches of snow.

Thanks to recent snowfall, the Twin Cities have pulled out of the snow drought they were in early in the season.

“Recent storms have brought the Twin Cities seasonal snowfall total up to 39.7″, which is 2.5 inches above normal through February 12,” the National Weather Service- Twin Cities, tweeted Wednesday.

Strange as this February’s weather may be, there’s not enough information to tie the events to climate change.

“We can’t really do the diagnosis in terms of relating it to climate change until it’s over,” Blumenfeld said. “I think it would be hard to tease this out from the normal behavior.”

Looking ahead

There’s still time to beat the all-time February snow record, though it’s unclear in current forecasts whether it’s likely to happen.

“Based on our current forecast, we look to dry out over the next seven days. We do see some colder than average air toward Friday, Saturday, Sunday, towards this weekend and looking into early next week,” said Brent Hewett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, said Tuesday.

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As of Thursday morning, there’s a solid chance of snow in the forecast for Minneapolis Thursday — not expected to be significant — and Sunday. More than seven days out, and there’s more snow forecasted, but forecasts aren’t terribly accurate a week in advance.

The last few weeks will probably go down as one of the more interesting periods of weather of the year, but they’re unlikely to make the history books.

“We’ve had snowier periods for sure. We’ve had colder periods and we’ve also had more changeable periods,” Blumenfeld said.