How Unusual Is This Winter - Really!

The winter of 2013/14 has been brutally cold and snowy, certainly the worst winter in decades.

Really! Are you sure?

There is no doubt this winter has been cold and fairly snowy with a number of ground blizzard events. The persistent cold is more unusual, yet is it really that uncommon? Are we suffering from a collective case of meteorological amnesia? Is it perspective, background, historical memory? No one would argue the fact that the winter of 2013/14 has been colder than recent years. But from the longer term perspective it is not quite as bad as some people may think. Why is that? There are several reasons that come into play; let's look at them.

Demographics: Perhaps we should backup a bit to put this in a human perspective. We know that the Red River Valley region, North Dakota and Minnesota as a whole has seen an influx of residents from other parts of the country. For a variety of reasons folks have been moving into the Peace Garden State and North Star State from milder climates, such as the mid-South, the Eastern Seaboard or West Coast. Many of those transplants would experience weather-shock, even in a 'mild' Red River Valley Winter.

Age Perspective: How old are you? How many winters have you had to trudge through? For those born around the time of the 1997 Red River Flood, this certainly is one of the worst winters ever - from their perspective. For those of us who have lived here a little longer, this is certainly becoming a "long winter" but we've been through worse. Long time residents of the region, particularly those who lived through the Dirty Thirties remember extremes that are far worse than this.

Weather Memory: Face it, the majority of us do not have photographic memories. Even those of us who work in the profession of meteorology need to go back and check the records peridocally to see how things really stack up. It's just a fact of life - our memories get tainted by the most recent events.

What do the numbers say: So, what is it? Colder than recent years - no doubt. Snowy? Yes, but about on track for what we would expect in any given year. Snowier than recent years? Yes and No. Below are tables representing the highest total snowfall for Fargo and the UND/NWS station from December 1st through January 22. Similarly, the lowest average temperature for the same period is represented.

The information below is preliminary based on the raw observed data for Fargo and the UND/NWS Climate station. These values represent roughly the first half of the meteorological winter, from December1, 2013 to January 22, 2014. The information is courtesy of the Acis system, a joint venture of NCDC and Regional Climate Center.

Lowest Mean Temperature for Fargo ND
Rank
Value
Ending Date
Missing Days
1 -4.0 1887 5
2 -2.5 1888 0
3 -1.8 1883 0
4 1.3 1977 0
5 1.6 1982 0
6 2.0 1884 0
7 2.2 1979 0
8 2.4 1918 0
9 2.6 1984 0
- 2.6 1965 0
11 2.8 1917 0
12 3.0 1885 0
13 3.2 1978 0
14 3.5 1894 0
15 3.7 1950 0
18 4.2 2009 0
21 4.7 2014 0
Period of record: 1881-01-01 to 2014-01-22

Highest Total Snowfall for Fargo Area, ND.

Rank
Value
Ending Date
Missing Days
1 45.6 1989 0
2 43.4 1997 0
3 40.0 2009 0
4 38.2 2011 0
5 37.1 1937 0
6 36.4 1982 0
7 33.7 1996 0
8 31.1 1994 0
9 30.7 1952 0
10 29.2 1928 0
- 29.2 1907 0
12 28.3 2010 0
13 23.3 2014 0
14 22.7 1929 0
15 22.6 1897 0
Period of record: 1885-09-01 to 2014-01-21

Lowest Mean Temperature for UND/NWS
Rank
Value
Ending Date
Missing Days
1 -1.6 1917 2
2 -0.4 1950 3
3 0.0 1907 1
4 0.9 1979 0
5 0.9 1920 0
6 1.0 1911 2
7 1.1 1978 0
8 1.3 2009 0
9 1.4 1977 0
10 1.6 2014 0
11 1.8 1912 0
12 2.1 1943 0
13 2.3 1965 0
14 2.3 1936 1
15 2.5 1925 2
Period of record: 1893-01-01 to 2014-01-22
Highest Total Snowfall UND/NWS
Rank
Value
Ending Date
Missing Days
1 51.0 1996 0
2 46.4 1997 5
3 39.8 2014 0
4 35.6 2009 0
5 35.1 1994 0
6 34.2 2010 0
7 32.8 1919 0
8 32.0 1999 0
9 27.5 2005 0
10 27.2 2011 0
11 26.6 1950 0
12 26.3 1971 0
13 23.9 1969 0
14 23.0 1967 0
15 22.5 1917 0
Period of record: 1893-01-04 to 2014-01-22

In looking at the data it is apparent there has been a run of colder than median weather since the start of this meteorological winter. But what's this? For the Fargo area it has been colder and snowier in recent years for the same period. Same story for the UND/NWS station. The 2008/2009 was a colder and nearly as snowy winter - similar to this one - and that is a mere 5 years ago. So the facts show that while this is indeed a colder and snowier winter than "normal", it has been worse. 

The answer is blowing in the wind: Wind speed is the one climatological statistic that is less readily available to mine. The data are compiled regularly, but the raw statistical data is more difficult to review. However, there are some visualizations that do show it has been windier than normal this year. Below is a series of images that show the  average departure from normal wind speed for this and some recent early winters.

 Winter Perspectives. Click for larger version

 "Images provided by the NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division, Boulder Colorado from their Web site at http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/"

The montage of images above represent the wind anomalies of some recent winters compared with this winter. The departure from normal mean wind speed from December 1 through January 21st of 2013/14 (top left) and 2010/11 (top right);  2008/09 (bottom left) and 1996/97 (bottom right). While this has been a cold and breezy winter, the 2008/09 was about the same, but 2010/11 was windier on average. And if you lived here for the 1996/97 winter - well, this winter is a lamb in comparison.

That is not to diminish the risks associated with the cold and windy conditions we've seen so far this year. The recent spate of ground blizzards combined with the unusually cold temperatures have made for life threatening conditions. However, 5 years ago we had more snow in many areas by this time and it was as cold or colder; particularly north of the U. S. 200 Corridor. 18 years ago the winter was simply devastating, and periodically through the past the residents of the Red River Valley region have endured worse winters.

So: Cold - Check. Snow - Check. Wind - Check. It's a Northland Winter.



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