January Thaws: How Common are they for Northern Michigan?

Just about anyone who has lived in northern Michigan for a number of years can attest to the fact that most winters feature a January thaw. While there is no true definition of what constitutes such an event, the January thaw is typically seen as a period of abnormally warm temperatures that occurs sometime during the month of January, which is typically the coldest time of year in Michigan. Some unofficial definitions state that temperatures must average at least 10 degrees above average for a period of 1-2 days, but more commonly, most folks see the thaw as a brief relaxation of cold and snowy winter weather that usually results in at least moderate, if not significant, snow melt.

Not all years have seen January thaw conditions across northern Michigan, but the majority have. Below is a look at the number of years in which selected cities saw high temperatures at or above 38 degrees (roughly 10 degrees above normal) for at least 2 days during January. As can be seen, January thaw conditions are quite normal for most of the area, with the location least likely to see a significant thaw being Sault Ste Marie.

Location

Alpena

Gaylord

Cadillac

Petoskey

Traverse City

Houghton Lake

Sault Ste Marie

Number of January Months with at Least 2 Days Above 38ºF

 65 since 1917

42 since 1952

66 since 1909

71 since 1893*

83 since 1897

72 since 1913

41 since 1889

Probability of a Significant January Thaw

68%

70%

64%

66%

72%

72%

33%

* Missing data for Petoskey 1942-1952 

While this winter season has been anything but cold and snowy, we have recently experienced a 3-week period of more typical chill along with a few periods of snow that began back in mid-December. As we are looking ahead, however, that cold is quickly abating, courtesy of a deep trough of low pressure parking itself over the western United States, sending a strong southerly wind flow from the Gulf of Mexico through much of the eastern half of the country. This pattern will bring us an extended stretch of quite warm weather for this time of year, beginning Thursday and continuning through Saturday.

A few highlights of the upcoming thaw include:

  • High temperatures warming well into the 40s, and perhaps lower 50s, today and Saturday.
  • Significant snow melt across the entire region, with many spots likely losing most if not all all remaining snow.

For additional information on weather conditions across Michigan, visit the National Weather Service web pages from Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Marquette.

 

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