Leap day. It is what we call February 29, the day added onto February every fourth year to keep the seasons from slowly drifting through time as the earth takes slightly longer than 365 days to revolve around the Sun. Leap day on occasion does impact climate statistics and this past winter was possibly one of those times.
Our recently completed winter was the 16th coldest on record, but the National Weather Service recently released a statement that this past winter was the 17th coldest on record. The difference? February 29, 1904. Including that day makes the winter of 1903-1904 average temperature 4.4 degrees. Without that day, the average temperature is 4.2 degrees. The winter of 2013-2014 that we just completed had an average of 4.3 degrees meaning that depending on if you include that leap day this winter’s ranking changes by one position. Is one statistic more accurate than the other?
Not necessarily, but leap day seems to get little respect, so I always include in all my analysis and most other researchers do as well.
An email arrived in the weather center asking what day of the year has the largest temperature range from the record low to the record high. The recorded low on January 8, 1887 was -48 degrees. Thirteen years later, on January 8, 1900, the recorded high temperature reached 50 degrees.
That difference of 98 degrees still stands as the greatest range between a record high and low for any date in Fargo Moorhead. In second place is March 18. On March 18, 2012 the high reached 78 degrees with the record low for that date being -19 degrees observed in both 1883 and in 1923 for a difference of 97 degrees from record high to record low. A snow free March as we learned in 2012 can be very mild, a snow covered March like last year and so far this year, can be bitterly cold.
Those snow variations in combination with a higher sun angle this time of year make March the month with most of the extreme record differences observed in this area.
This past winter season was definitely cold, but it certainly was not snowy. From December 1 through February 28, the official snow total from our cooperative observer in north Moorhead totaled 27.3 inches. That is 2.1 inches below the average of 29.4 inches for that time period. It was the second year in a row with snowfall being very close to the average during the three principal months of winter as last year 28.7 inches was recorded.
More important than the amount of snow is the water content in that snow. The 27.3 inches of snow that fell in the past three months contained 2.09 inches of liquid, right at the average of 2.14 inches. Meaning, this past winter was about as average as average gets for winter precipitation. The driest of the three winter months was February as only 1.5 inches was measured last month, the 8th lowest total on record for that month.
That snow contained only 0.11 inches of liquid making February 2014 the 7th driest since records began in 1881.
By now many of you may have heard that both Fargo Moorhead and Grand Forks set a record on Saturday, March 1 for the coldest high temperature not only for that date, but also for the month of March. The high in Grand Forks (UND/National Weather Service site) was -9 degrees and in Fargo Moorhead the high reached -8 degrees.
Of note, the high of -8 degrees in Fargo occurred just after midnight with the afternoon high reaching only -10 degrees. Both of those highs shattered the daily record for lowest maximum for March 1 and narrowly set new monthly records. The previous coldest March high was -7 in Fargo Moorhead set back on March 10, 1948 and in Grand Forks the previous record was -8 set on March 6, 1955.
Other cities in the region that set new March records for lowest maximum over the weekend included Sioux City and Waterloo, IA, Omaha and Lincoln, NE, and Eau Claire, WI, plus many others around the country.
The average temperature this past winter (December through February) was 4.3 degrees. That ranks as the 16th coldest winter of the 133 winters on record in Fargo Moorhead (records began on January 1, 1881, therefore the first winter has incomplete data, meaning the first winter of record was the winter of 1881-1882).
The last colder winter in Fargo Moorhead was back in 1981-1982 when the average temperature was 3.3 degrees. Other fairly recent colder winters were in the late 1970s. The winter of 1978-1979 the average temperature was 0.6 degrees and the winter of 1977-1978 the average was 2.8 degrees. Those were the two coldest back to back winters since the 1880s. Even with such a cold winter being recorded, no record lows were set. Of interest, the coldest temperature of winter was just -25 degrees on January 2 which is 3 degrees above the average coldest temperature recorded in a year locally.
There have been colder winters, but if you are under 30, it was the coldest winter in your lifetime.
Yesterday in this space I mentioned that the low temperature at Hector Int’l recorded a low below zero on 65 of the 90 days during our just completed winter season. On most of those days, the air temperature remained below zero for many hours of the day and on some days; the temperature remained below zero the entire 24 hours of that day.
Using the hourly reports from the airport, the temperature in Fargo was below zero for approximately 900 hours December 1 to February 28. That many hours would total 37 complete days of the 90 days of meteorological winter. Put another way, approximately 40% of winter was below zero. Grand Forks’ total hours represented in days would be about 45 days below zero, the Twin Cities, 20 days and Bismarck 25 days.
It may not have been even close to the coldest winter on record, but it was still a very memorable one.
Yesterday was the last day of climatological winter. It was a cold winter, the coldest since the winter of 1981-1982. One of the most impressive stats these past three months has been the number of below zero days. From December 1 to February 28 the daily low temperature was below zero on 65 days which is nearly three out of four days over the past three months.
As of this morning this cold season is currently ranked as having the 19th highest number of days below zero since records began in 1881 (with more negative days to come). Yet, if you only include the three principal months of winter, the 65 days recorded last season would rank as the 6th highest. Plus, if you exclude the 1880s before temperature measurement standards were initiated in 1891, this past climatological winter would rank 3rd behind the winters 1935-1936 and 1949-1950 both tied with 66 negative days.
Our average last day with a high temperature below zero in Fargo Moorhead is February 9. Therefore, any of the next few days if we fail to get above zero would be well beyond that average date. The record low maximum temperature this Friday (February 28) is -11 degrees set back in 1962, but once we hit March, high temperatures below zero become rare.
Since records have been kept in 1881, there have been only 11 instances with a high below zero in Fargo Moorhead during the month of March. The last occurred in 2009 when the high was -1 degree on March 11. A high below zero this time of year may be a bit uncommon, but low temperatures below zero are common place. The average last date with a low below zero is March 11.
Considering our current cold snap should last into next week, the odds are high our last negative reading of this season will be at least near that average if not later.
September 2013 finished well above average, but since then the temperature in this area has been consistently cold. This region is not alone with that statistic as, since October 1, about 75% of the lower 48 states have recorded temperatures below average. Locally, the average temperature has been about 5 degrees below normal during the past five months with an average temperature of 18.3 degrees from October 1 through February 21.
That would rank that period as the 33rd coldest out of the 133 years with available records. That would place this year in the top 25 percent coldest. As a comparison, the average temperature during our very mild winter of 2011-2012 was about 13 degrees warmer during that same period with an average temperature of 31 degrees. That was the warmest such period on record. The past few years makes for quite the contrast on the type of cold season this area can experience.
As February comes to a close and the traditional warmer weather of spring ahead of us, one very common question asked of me lately is what type of temperatures we can expect in March. The average high temperature on March 1 is 29 degrees which rises to 46 degrees on March 31. The average low climbs from 12 degrees to 26 degrees over the month.
The overall average temperature during the month of March in Fargo Moorhead is 27.8 degrees. My current forecast is for March to finish below that average, but I would be surprised if we finished anywhere near the bitterly cold average of 17.3 degrees that the metro recorded last year. That was the 16th coldest March since records began in 1881. Our average March precipitation 1.30 inches of rain and melted snow with most years a majority of that coming from melted snow. Our average March snowfall is 9.1 inches, the 3rd snowiest month of the year based on averages.