The Big Story Blog

The Big Story Blog: January 9, 2012 Archive

Monday 1/9/2012
Where's our winter?

Posted at 8:41 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Hed

Forty-plus degrees, again, in January? No snow in the forecast. A mosquito sighting? Big Story Blog today looks at the crazy weather and the cascading effects on our economy and our sense of place.

Crazy winter so far throws Minnesota life out of balance

Posted at 8:49 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

Two charts from the Minnesota Climatology Working Group show you all need to know about Minnesota's upside down winter.

Here's the snow depth last year on Jan. 6, with Minnesota covered in big blotches of deep blues and purples showing most of Minnesota with at least a foot of snow:

depth.2011.jpg

And here's the chart from Thursday , where brown rules:

depth2012.jpg

It's a crazy swing. This is not the winter we're supposed to be having. Even the Farmers' Almanac got it wrong:

almanac.jpg

According to the almanac's predictions made last summer, there's supposed to be heavy snow (8-12") this week from the Rockies through Northern and Central Plains.

It may be an aberration or it may be signs of climate change. But there's no doubt it's throwing us off. What are we to make of the weather we're in?

Around Minnesota, the weather baffles, cancels

Posted at 9:27 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

beargrease.jpg
AP Photo/The Country Today, Paul M. Walsh

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Race in Duluth has only been cancelled once in 30 years. But the warm weather put the Jan. 29 race start in jeopardy,

Beargrease officials plan to meet Sunday to decide if trail conditions are safe and snowy enough to hold the race.

More stories on the weird weather so far this winter:

With no snow to plow, city budgets catch a break

Posted at 10:03 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

MPR news reporter Jessica Mador writes how the warm weather is bringing budget relief to some Minnesota cities. Here's her report:

The New Year's snowstorm was a rare snow sighting for the Twin Cities this winter. The last six months of 2011 were the second warmest on record for the metro since 1873. In this tough budget climate, the lack of snow has helped some cities keep their spending down. jess mador has more.

Mike Kennedy has seen a lot of snow in his two decades with Minneapolis public works. At the city's garage just west of downtown, Kennedy says this winter looks very different from the last one. Some of his crews worked more than a month without a day off clearing ice and snow from the streets at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011.

"Last year we had so much snow that the streets really narrowed. Traffic got dangerous," he says. "We needed to widen the streets, reclaim the driving lanes and actually haul the snow away. That is a very expensive proposition."

And much of last winter's snow fell on weekends and holidays, making it even more expensive to clear. Crews working around the clock put the city about $3 million over its $9 million annual budget by the beginning of last year. Kennedy says the mild finish to 2011 helped.

"We thought we were maybe going to be a half million dollars short or if we had an average December we'd be a million and a half overbudget, but as it turns out, this has been a real saving grace for us for the 2011 budget and so we think we'll be okay and the light winter so far will allow us to stay within budget for the calendar year 2011."

Even with the savings at the end of last year though, Kennedy stresses that Minneapolis typically burns through much of its budget just being prepared for snow and ice. The city has to have all its equipment and supplies on hand whether it snows a lot or not.

Other metro cities are also enjoying the break from several years of heavy snow.

"No question that that helps us out."

Bloomington public works maintenance superintendant Larry Tschida says his city budgets for about a dozen snow emergencies in a typical year. With much of the snow falling on weekends last winter, labor and fuel costs quickly stacked up and most of the city's budget was spent by last March. This year, he says, Bloomington crews are tackling the kinds of maintenance they couldn't get to last winter.

"This year we are ahead of the game, exactly, we've been out working on the tree trimming and working in the parks trimming trees, doing that type of thing because we have not had to do snow plowing."

It's a similar picture in the northwest metro.

Jamie Verbrugge is city manager of Brooklyn Park. That suburb also went through most of its snowplow budget in the beginning of last winter.

"So the fact that we didn't have much snow in November and December actually was really a blessing because it helped us to not go even more over budget."

Still, Brooklyn Park had to transfer about $50,000 to its snow budget last year to buy more salt because the city ran out.

Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, says some cities are waiting longer to send plows or declare a snow emergency because of difficult budgets. Last year's heavy snows were particularly challenging.

"It almost seemed like there was a conspiracy last winter that somebody up there didn't like municipal budgets and the snow did come at the most inopportune time. It's worth noting of course too that the biggest part of the cost of providing snow plowing is in the labor cost, and regardless of whether it snows a lot or hardly at all, those labor costs are for the most part fixed."

St. Paul doesn't have a final 2011 snow and ice tally yet. City Engineer John Maczko says he's hoping the light snow at the end of 2011 will mean savings. The city is likely to come out ahead at least on snow removal -- actually picking up and hauling snow away. The city did that a lot in 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Not so this winter.

"Mother Nature has done a great job melting snow for us."

But Maczo isn't ready to relax. He's been in the business of winter for too long.

"I always tell people I get nervous because I'm a firm believer in the law of averages and I'm hoping that this is an averaging out for what Mother Nature did to us last year and not a delay for the season and now we are going to get everything for the season in March and April."

So far, weather forecasts are calling for even more unseasonably mild weather.

Colder 2nd half of winter?

Posted at 10:41 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

We're hoping to talk in detail later today with meteorologist Paul Huttner on the uber-mild winter we're having so far and what might be to come.

He's giving us some perspective this morning on his MPR News blog. Huttner writes:

Could this be the last major push of near record warmth in Minnesota for a while?

You would be on thin ice to forecast that in this "unwinter" of 2011-'12. But signs in the long range forecast maps may be pointing in a direction that will lead us to colder weather in the next 6 weeks.

Cold air has been building over Alaska the past few weeks. It's been -35 to -50 in Alaskan interior, and there are signs that chunks of that cold are going to break off and head south toward Minnesota and the Great Lakes in the next 2-4 weeks.

Tuesday may be the last time we see temps in the 40s and 50s in Minnesota for the rest of January, and maybe beyond.

The changes in the AO, overall jet stream patterns and my gut tell me we're trending much closer to normal the second half of winter.

Snow-based businesses suffer the mild winter blues

Posted at 11:15 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

snowmobilies.JPG

We are not supposed to be having fun outdoors in shorts in January. The weird weather is playing havoc with businesses, particularly snowmobiling, that depend on snow and cold in the winter.

MPR News reporter Tom Robertson is working on a story about how some of those businesses are faring and dropped us an email with some of what he's learned so far. He writes:

According to the University of Minnesota Tourism Center, winter accounts for close to 25 percent of all tourism in the state. Snowmobiling accounts for a large chunk of that, generating nearly $130 million in revenue to communities each winter.

Snowmobile riding events across the state are being postponed or cancelled, according to the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association.

For many snowmobile dealers, sales and service of the machines has come to a near standstill. Some snowmobiling enthusiasts are taking their machines and their dollars to Michigan's UP, or out west to the Rocky Mountain region to find enough snow to ride.

Hotels and restaurants that rely heavily on snowmobiling and other winter recreation activity have to get more creative to attract business.

In the Brainerd Lakes area, businesses along the Paul Bunyan Trails are offering discounts and special lodging packages, and more bars and restaurants are offering live music to attract customers. That's according to the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

'Crashed Ice' competition OK despite warm weather

Posted at 12:13 PM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

crashice1.jpg

20120106crashice3.jpg

MPR News photographer Jeffrey Thompson shot these photos this morning of preparations for the Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship, where more than 100 skaters from around the world will compete in downhill racing, starting on Thursday.

The natural question: Can the competition start on time given our abnormally warm winter weather? The answer's yes.

MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert writes:

There are black plastic tubes running under the ice filled with glycol (antifreeze) that's refrigerated. I was out there this morning and the ice looked pretty frozen. Organizers say they can handle whatever weather Mother Nature throws at them.
A more worrisome question is what the weather might do to the St. Paul Winter Carnival, which depends on lots of cold weather and ice to support its outdoor fun.

A colder second half of winter is expected. Hopefully it will come in time for the carnival.

Warmest start ever to Twin Cities January?

Posted at 3:36 PM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

If the fair weather holds through Tuesday, this will be the warmest first ten days of January on record for the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Climatology Working Group says.

Records go back to 1873. The group also notes that four of the past 10 warmest starts to January have have happened since 2000.

Here's the entire entry:

January 1-10, 2012 may well be shaping up to be the warmest first ten days of January on record for the Twin Cities going back to 1873. Using the National Weather Service forecast for January 10th, the preliminary average temperature for the Twin Cities will be 31.4 degrees, beating January 1-10, 1880 with 31.2 degrees. It is interesting to note that four of the past ten warmest starts to January happened since 2000.

The average temperature for January 1-10 is about 15 degrees, so through the 10th the Twin Cities will be around 16 degrees above normal.

January 10 will continue the streak of at or above normal temperatures in the Twin Cities. The last time the average temperature was below normal was back on December 10, 2011.

Twin Cities Warmest January 1-10
Temperatures in Degrees F

Rank Avg T Jan 1-10
------------------------
1 31.4 2012
2 31.2 1880
3 29.9 1992
4 29.2 2007
29.2 2006
6 27.8 1889
7 27.6 1987
8 26.9 2003
26.9 1939
10 26.5 1933

Will warm weather shatter below-zero record?

Posted at 3:58 PM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

nnnnooosnow2.JPG
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

We posted some data earlier from Minnesota Climatology Working Group showing that this first 10 days of January in the Twin Cities are likely to be the warmest on record.

The working group has also posted data showing this might end up being the longest stretch in the Twin Cities before hitting a below zero temperature. January 18 is the current record.

Here's the working group entry:

In 140 years of record keeping in the Twin Cities, the official temperature has always fallen below zero sometime during the winter. The latest being January 18th during the winters of 1888-89 and 2000-2001.

So far as of January 9, there has not been a below zero temperature recorded so far at the Twin Cities International Airport. There has never been a winter that has not dipped below zero at least twice in the Twin Cities.

The latest into a season that a winter has gone without seeing a below zero temperature was in the winter of 1888-89 and 2000-2001 that lasted until January 18th without going below zero. So far the winter of 2011-2012 is in eighth place for the latest a winter has lasted without a below zero reading at the official Twin Cities recording station.

The long term average for the first below zero reading in the Twin Cities is December 9.

The winter of 2000-2001 only had two days with temperatures that reached below zero The Chanhassen National Weather Service has a tally of the lowest counts of below zero temperatures in past winters.


Twin Cities First Below Zero Temperature: 1872-2012 Winters

Rank Season First Below Zero
------------------------
1) 1888-89 January 18
1) 2001-02 January 18
3) 1954-55 January 16
4) 1881-82 January 14
5) 1913-14 January 11
5) 1974-75 January 11
5) 2002-03 January 11
8) 2011-12 January 9 (so far)
9) 1877-78 January 4
10) 1969-70 January 2

Minnesota's weird, warm winter: FAQs

Posted at 4:24 PM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

nnnnooosnow1.JPG
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Meteorologist Paul Huttner is a smart voice on Minnesota weather matters. He's been writing about the warm, weird winter on his blog. And this afternoon he answered some Frequently Asked Questions.

Q: Why has winter been so warm?

A: There may not be one specific reason. The jet stream has stayed unusually far north in Canada so far this winter. One reason is the so called Arctic Oscillation. It's been in a strong "positive phase" this year which means stronger westerlies and Pacific air masses for Minnesota.

Last year it was strongly negative, which allowed cold air and an undulating jet stream to blast us with snow. I've posted on this many times in Updraft. Here's the latest.

Q: Will the mild winter so far have any effect on Minnesota's spring, summer or fall?

A: No. Weather records show no credible correlation between winter weather and the following summer.

Q: Did forecasters predict this kind of winter? If not, what's changed between the prediction and reality?

A: Most foresters (NOAA, Star Tribune, Accuweather etc.) predicted a colder than average winter. They did this based on a forecast of continued La Nina conditions, which have weakened. MPR predicted a near average winter overall, but mentioned the possibility of the mild decadal trends overriding the cold for a milder than average winter.

From my late October post.

Decadal Trends: Our changing winter climate?

Juxtaposed over the technical and dynamic factors that may control winter weather are so called decadal trends, which lean strongly in favor of milder winters with less snowfall for Minnesota.

Some facts from the past decade include:

-- 7 of the past 10 winters have featured significantly below average snowfall in the metro, (70% bias toward less than average snow in the past 10 years)

-- In those years the average winter snowfall has been 33.6"
(Roughly 22" below the 30 year average of 55.9"!)

-- 6 of the past 10 winters have featured above average temperatures
(60% bias toward milder than average winters the past 10 years)

The bottom line is, winters are trending milder in Minnesota, and while averages are made up of extremes on both ends, you can't ignore the background trend when looking at the potential for two colder and snowier than average winters in a row.

Variable: Decadal trends in winter temps and snowfall in Minnesota

Potential effect on Minnesota winter: Milder winters temps (especially at night) and a apparent bias toward lower winter snowfall totals.

Trend for 2011-'12: Increased odds for a milder winter with less snow than 2010-'11

Q: Is this a sign of future winter patterns in Minnesota?

A: Probably. As I said above, the decadal trends strongly favor milder winters in Minnesota.

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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