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Snow Drought and El Nino This Winter

This winter, we’ve seen sur­prisingly little snow and warm­er than normal temperatures.

After last winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Ad­ministration (NOAA) declared that “from heavy snow to strong winds and mixed precipitation, the 2022-2023 winter season was one for the record books!”

Snow totals of 12 to 15 feet here in the Arrowhead put us in the top ten snowiest winters on record. But are we in a snow drought?

According to the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Glossary of Meteorology, “snow drought occurs when there is a pe­riod of abnormally low snowpack for the time of year in question.”

The 2022/23 winter was affect­ed by a La Nina climate event. With La Nina, one would ex­pect record-low temperatures as well. But the result last year was a snowier and warmer-than-average winter.

After three years of El Nina, her bigger brother, El Nino, took over our weather this past October in an unpredictable but repeating pattern.

El Nino arises from warmer than normal surface waters on the equator that flow up the cen­tral and eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean, and he hangs around for nine months or more.

Changing global wind patterns bring El Nino to our region, pro­ducing warmer winters with less snowfall.

To some extent, this warmer winter is also a result of ongoing climate change. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports that “In Minnesota, a typical winter day is now sev­eral degrees warmer than in the middle of the 20th century, and average low temperatures during January, our coldest month, have increased by over 10 degrees F in some areas.”

NOAA and other agencies track the snowfall year from July 1 to June 30, so we won’t know how this season’s snowfall compares for a while. But if we set records this year, it won’t be for the most snow or the deepest cold. It’ll be the opposite.

The snowpack acts as a natu­ral reservoir, storing water from winter precipitation to supply water throughout the spring and summer. On its Facebook page at the end of January, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Du­luth published an analysis of the snowpack in its region. Looking at snow depth and snow water equivalent (the amount of water held in the snow), they conclude that the snowpack in January was less than 10% of normal.

The AMS glossary states, “Re­ductions in snowpack can nega­tively impact the recreation and tourism industries.” We won’t know what those impacts will be for several months.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at Colorado University, the other effect of the recent snow melt and lack of snowpack is warmer temperatures.

NSIDC states, “Because snow is highly reflective, a vast amount of sunlight that hits the snow is reflected back into space instead of warming the planet. Without snow cover, the ground absorbs about four to six times more of the sun’s energy.”

With warmer temperatures and few significant snowfalls here, it’s important to note that the lat­est measurable snowfall in Min­nesota, 1.5 inches, occurred in Koochching County on June 4, 1935.

So, there’s still hope if you’re looking for more snow.

Minnesota weather has always been unpredictable. That’s what we mean when we say, “Ahh, this is typical Minnesota weather.”

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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