March begins tomorrow. In other places, March means the beginning of spring. However, here in Fargo Moorhead, the best we can usually hope for in March is the beginning of the end of winter. This year, March will start out with below-average temperatures, but at this point it is impossible to tell if the month will remain cold or if it will moderate.
Many of us have had our memories skewed by quick and early thaws each of the last two years. Last year?s spring flood crest happened March 21. In 2009, it was on March 28. But these were atypical. Historically, the Red River begins rising in late March and crests sometime in April because March usually starts out below freezing and slowly moderates as the snow pack melts. A nice, slow thaw with very little precipitation would be the best thing for reducing the flood?s impacts this year. The worst combination would be a cold March with heavy snows followed by a sudden warm up in April with rain.
We have the traditional four seasons; summer, winter, fall and spring. We have what could be called a snow season, a thunderstorm season, a severe weather season and of course a growing season. But do we have a blow ice season? The term blow ice is used to describe the situation when snow blowing over a roadway melts and refreezes creating a section of ice. Because that icy stretch was created by blowing snow, the term blow ice is an appropriate descriptive term that has become a part of our vernacular.
The months of February and March are still climatologically cold months; yet, the sun becomes increasingly stronger as we approach spring. That higher sun angle warms area road surfaces above freezing no matter what the air temperature is this time of year. Any snow light enough to be blown across the road tends to melt and refreeze making for slippery conditions that can take a driver by surprise.
When the weather turned mild a couple of weeks ago, there was a flood of inquiries into the WDAY Weather Office about what effect the thaw would have on the flood. The answer, disappointingly, was that there would be little effect because little moisture had actually been lost. The present cold snap has created another flood of inquiries concerned with the possibility that a cold spring could lead to a sudden thaw later in the spring. Again, the answer is that the present cold snap has little or no meaning with regard to the spring flood. The fact that all is again frozen means nothing because, even though today?s temperatures are below average, average weather in February is still below freezing.
The average high temperature stays below freezing until March 12. Most spring thaws take place in mid to late March with most flood crests between late March and mid April. Certainly a slow melt would be better than a rapid melt, but the present cold weather is not an indicator of either.
It was during this week in 1936 that Fargo Moorhead recorded a temperature above zero after 37 straight days with both the high and low at or below 0 degrees. It was a cold snap with no equal in the record books. Yet, other communities had it even worse. Langdon, ND for instance, went 42 straight days with the temperature below zero and unlike Fargo Moorhead, continued to see the low temperatures fall below zero for two more weeks.
In fact, the first day of 1936 with a low above zero in Langdon was on March 7. From December 9 through March 6 Langdon recorded a low temperature below zero every day with the exception of 5 days in December. The spring fared no better with temperatures below zero on 11 days in late March into early April. The low on April 8, 1936 was -15 degrees, which was fortunately the last below zero reading of the season for them.
Monday?s official snowfall measurement was 6.7 inches, which brought the grand total for the month of February to 7 inches. But you may recall, if you shoveled Monday?s snow, that it was literally light as a feather. Due to ideal snow crystal growth conditions in the clouds Monday, those snow crystals grew extremely large. When the snowflakes settled on the ground, the large crystals left a lot of space between each other. This extra space was nothing but air, which is why the snow was so light when it was shoveled. Based on a strict adherence to the rules, the National Weather Service is expected to have a Winter Storm Warning in place any time six inches of snow falls in a twelve hour period.
However, they did not hoist a Warning last Monday. It is a good thing, too, because the downy snow accumulation caused few problems Monday except to make streets icy. A Winter Storm Warning would have seemed a heavy handed reaction.
After a nearly continuous light snow fall on Monday, the sky finally cleared around 3:00 PM. Yet, even with a clear blue sky, the snow continued to fall. In fact, it snowed for approximately one hour without a single cloud in sight.
In winter, especially on bitterly cold mornings, ice crystals in the air, often referred to as diamond dust, are fairly common as their formation is not associated with clouds. But on Monday, the light snow falling without any cloud cover was formed within in a cloud.
Snowflakes generally fall to earth at an average speed of only 1-2 miles per hour, but because Monday?s snow event was especially fluffy, the flakes may have been falling as slow as one-half mile per hour. Therefore, it would take 1 hour for a flake to fall 2,500 feet and that was about how high the cloud ceilings were on Monday.
The mild weather last week might already be a distant memory, but during that stretch Fargo Moorhead recorded 7 straight days with a high temperature above 32 degrees. During that period, several people inquired if we were breaking any record high temperatures.
The warmest temperature was on Sunday, February 13, when the official high at the airport reached 44 degrees which was 6 degrees shy of the record. The other days were also at least 6 degrees from the record with most more than 10 degrees from the daily record high. Although the air mass in place during that week was conducive toward record breaking temperatures, our deep snow pack lowered our temperature potential.
Most record highs this time of year occurred during periods of little or no snow cover. Although, each situation is different, snow cover usually suppresses the air temperature potential by at least 10 degrees.
If you took a trip to Florida this winter to get away from our cold temperatures, you may have been disappointed with the temperatures during your visit. The months of December and January, combined, were the coldest such period on record for the state of Florida. December in particular was very harsh on the sunshine state with temperatures averaging 6 to 12 degrees below average. January, although still cooler than average, generally finished only 1 to 3 degrees below normal.
These colder temperatures not only impacted vacations, but crops as well. Much of the produce we buy in the winter comes from Florida. With hard freezes this winter Florida and recently in Mexico, many vegetable varieties did not reach maturity before they froze.
Therefore, the recent spike in the cost of buying fruits and vegetables is wholly attributed so the colder than average winter in the Deep South.
Although it has been feeling like spring lately, spring is still not here as evidenced by the weather today. Seven consecutive days with temperatures above freezing did as much to lift up area spirits as it did to melt down area snow piles. Unfortunately, winter has returned and our spirits will have to wait a few more weeks for any real and true start of spring weather.
Likewise, the snow piles did not really melt away; they merely settled and became denser owing to a still frozen ground. The outlook for the rest of February is for the weather to remain below freezing. To have thawing days as a matter of course will not likely happen until at least the middle of March. The average high temperature remains freezing or below through March 12, when it goes to 33 degrees.
The sad fact is, for winter-weary people, spring is an arduous process which has yet to even begin.