Saturday is Groundhog’s Day, made famous in recent decades by the celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. But the origins of having a celebration on February 2 goes back to ancient times as today marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.
In more modern times, European Christians observed Candlemas on this date. The name derives from the candles lit in churches to celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem. An old Celtic saying developed around that holiday that “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight, If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.”
The mark of the midpoint between a solstice and an equinox is referred to as a cross quarter day. The other such days in the year include May 1, with our May Day celebration, August 1, without a modern celebration and October 31, which of course is the day in recent times that Halloween is observed.
The snowfall on Monday in Fargo Moorhead pushed the snow depth up to 7 inches, the highest of the season so far. Last winter, like this year, the snow depth was generally minimal, although, it did peak at 9 inches in early March.
Since snow depth records have been kept during the winter of 1892-1893 the average maximum snow depth locally has been 13 inches. The record snow depth was recorded during the infamous winter of 1996-1997 when 32 inches was recorded in March. In more recent winters, the snow seasons of 2008-9, 2009-10, 2010-11 all recorded a maximum depth around 20 inches which has likely attributed to the sense of so little snow in these past two years.
Lack of snow cover was particularly noticeable in the late 1950s. The six winters from 1954-55 to 1959-1960 all never had a snow depth above 8 inches and those were also years with very little total snowfall as well.
You have likely noticed the later sunsets in recent days. The Sun now sets around 5:30 PM in Fargo Moorhead. A few days before the winter solstice the Sun set was at 4:38 PM, meaning we have gained nearly an hour in the past five weeks in the afternoon.
In the morning, it has been another story. The sun rises now around 7:55 AM, which has been a gain of only around 18 minutes from our latest sunrise of 8:13 AM several days after the winter solstice. Although sun rise times have not improved much so far, in the next couple of weeks you will likely notice a faster acceleration in the mornings. If you enjoy the early morning sun, there is a note of caution.
The recent changes to when daylight saving time starts will greatly impact the mornings. By early March our sunrise will be around 7:00 AM, but then on March 10 when daylight saving time starts, the sunrise will go back to 8:00 AM and then the whole process will start once again.
The first half of winter (December 1 through January 15) is behind us and if it has felt a lot colder than last year the data definitely supports that perception. The average temperature during that stretch was 10.5 degrees colder this year then that same period last winter. Granted, that is a significant difference, but as a reminder, last winter was the warmest on record and the first half of the winter of 2011-2012 was nearly 4 degrees warmer than any other such period since records began.
Although this season has been much colder than last year, it is still running approximately 4 degrees above average, so unless the next six weeks record well below average temperatures, this will be our second winter in a row with an above average temperature. Previous to the past two years we recorded four colder than average cold seasons. In fact, the first half of the winter of 2008-2009 the average temperatures was 8 degrees below average.
The strong wind that accompanied the arctic cold front that moved through the area on Saturday, not only brought cold and blowing snow, but also a layer of snirt. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, snirt is a mixture of dirt and snow.
The lack of snow cover in the area has left many of the fields partially exposed. That allowed the strong wind on Saturday to pick up some dirt that mixed in with the blowing snow. Although not all areas have a noticeable brown hue to the snow, but the areas that do, it is most noticeable on the tops of the drifts. The past two decades have recorded so many snowy winters that snirt is a word that has not been used much, but historically dirty snow was much more common.
The famed “Super Bowl Blizzard” of 1975 that crippled much of Minnesota did not drop much snow locally, but the wind was so fierce that houses were covered in so much snirt that in North Dakota it was referenced as the “Black Blizzard”.
Our average high has now bottomed out at 18 degrees. It will stay at 18 degrees until January 23 when it will begin to rise and continue to rise until mid July. Our average low will drop one more degree to -1 in a couple of days, and remain at that level until January 22 before it begins to rise. Both of those averages will rise very slowly until mid February.
On Valentine’s Day, for example, our average high and low will only be 23 and 5 meaning the two averages only jump about one degree every four or five days once that upward trend begins next week. The true surge of warmth in our area really does not arrive until March. That month the average high will jump from 29 to 46 degrees or about a degree every other day.
The temperatures last Thursday gave us a brief taste of what will become common in March, but for now, we are in the grasp of Arctic air and just getting back to those averages will feel awfully good.
Last winter the coldest temperature of the season was a -17 degree low on January 19. Not only was that the coldest night of the 2011-12 cold season, it was also the last time Fargo Moorhead recorded a low in the double digits below zero for the rest of that winter. Although that -17 degree lowest temperature was not the warmest coldest night of a winter, that distinction goes to the winter of 2001-2002 when the coldest night was just -11 degrees, it did rank as tied for 7th in that category.
Since records started in 1881, the average lowest temperature of a winter locally is -28 degrees. Besides last year, recent cold seasons have been very near that average. The winter of 2010-11 the lowest temperature was -27 degrees, in 2009-10 it was -33 degrees, in 2008-09 it was -30 degrees and in 2007-08 it was -31 degrees.
Therefore we may not want to admit it, but the bitterly cold air that is moving into the area is quite normal for our climate.
In the past few years the state of North Dakota has added several automatic weather reporting sites to smaller airports. Places like Valley City, Rugby, Cooperstown, Langdon, Walhalla, Oakes among others, now have what is referred to as an AWOS (Automatic Weather Observation Station) at their airport.
These sites were paid for by the state and are maintained by All Weather, Inc based in Sacramento, CA. These sites not only give pilots much better local information, but these additional data also greatly benefit the Department of Transportation, the public and meteorologists. AWOS sites differ slightly from what the larger airports use. For example the equipment at Hector Int’l is a more sophisticated and is operated by the National Weather Service (NWS), rather than the state.
The Fargo Airport Authority provides the land for the device, but has no control over it and is not responsible for maintaining it. The NWS takes care of the maintenance which is also the case at most other larger airports in the country.
A year ago today, it was a Thursday for the record book. After recording a high of 41 degrees the previous day, which tied the record for January 4 last set back in 2001. The next day even warmer air moved into the area. With the lack of snow cover, abundant sunshine and a favorable west wind, the temperature soared into the 50s.
The official high that day at Hector Int’l was 55 degrees. Not only did that shatter the record for the day, which was previously just 40 degrees, it also surpassed the record for the warmest temperature in the month of January since records started in 1881. On January 20, 1908 the temperature reached 54 degrees locally and that high stood untouched for over 100 years before it was broken a year ago today. Another record was broken the following day when the high reached 44 degrees. Then two more records were broken on January 9 and 10 making for five record highs or ties in a week.
January 2012 finished tied as the 4th warmest on record.
December 2012 continued the recent trend for near average temperatures. Last month finished with an average temperature of 14.7 degrees which is 0.6 degrees above the current 30 year average. The first half of the month recorded very mild temperatures but the second half of the month turned cold enough that in the end the month finished close to normal. Although the temperatures in recent months have been fairly close to average,
December was another month with total precipitation finishing below normal. Our cooperative observer in north Moorhead measured 0.45 inches of liquid from the 5.1 inches of snow he measured (The airport reported 0.37 inches of liquid equivalency).
Average precipitation in December is 0.83 inches and the average snowfall is 11.2 inches. Only three of the twelve months in 2012 finished with above average precipitation and all of those three months would be better described as finishing near the average