It’s All Relative. Even Winter

Winter got a bit of an early start this year, causing many of us to think about migrating south for the winter, or at least going south for a few days.  But think about this. Some of the backyard birds we see during winter are actually migratory birds that have flown south to the Fargo Moorhead area for the winter. Pine grosbeaks, white-winged crossbills, and red crossbills; all hail from the Boreal forests of northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  And they actually come here for winter because it suits their needs.  Lapland longspurs and the common redpoll fly here from the High Arctic Tundra for our relatively mild winters.  A few years ago, I spent some time in Churchill, Manitoba, on a polar assignment for WDAY-TV.  I learned that many of the Churchill locals will spend a midwinter month or so “down south” in Winnipeg.  As they say, “It’s all relative.”   Meteorologist  John Wheeler

How Cold is Cold?

Last winter, the average temperature in Fargo Moorhead over the three primary winter months (December through February) was 1.1 degrees, which ranks as the eighth coldest winter on the record back to 1881.  The coldest winter on record is the winter of 1886-87, with an average temperature of 4.5 degrees below zero.  A difference of 5.6 degrees, averaged over an entire winter, is a powerful statement that the winter of 1886-87 was remarkable colder than what we experienced last winter.  The oldest weather record in our region comes from Fort Snelling near Minneapolis. This record is complete back to 1867 and sporadic back to 1820. At Fort Snelling, the winter of 1874-75 was significantly colder (by about three degrees) than the winter of 1886-87.  Last winter was a cold one.  But it can get a whole lot colder than that around here.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

Cold Weather Marathon or Sprint?

 

Is our present cold snap temporary or the start of another cold winter?  Many times, an early weather pattern which sends the Jet Stream so far north of Alaska and then so far south into the southern states is one which has trouble holding its place.  True, last winter brought a similar Jet Stream pattern and it lasted from early December right through into early May.  So not only was the winter cold, but the spring was mostly a continuation of the winter.  And while a continuation of the cold is certainly possible, it is probably slightly more likely that the pattern will break down in a week or so.  The break might be temporary, but it also might not.  Obviously, this is not intended to be a forecast.  Rather, this is just to point out that a cold spell in November is not a guarantee that the rest of the winter will be cold.    Meteorologist John Wheeler

Snow Means Cold

 

Most of the time, snow means colder weather. Snow cover does two things to temperature.  It reflects sunlight and it radiates Earth heat very well.  By reflecting sunlight efficiently, a lot of the potential energy coming into the air from the sun is reflected back into space.  Radiating Earth heat simply means the white color of snow allows the snow, itself, and also the air near the snow, to lose heat into space, particularly at night.  So when the ground is covered with snow, it is colder in the daytime and also in the nighttime but for different reasons.  Snow also creates a lagging effect on cold weather.  It takes energy to melt snow into liquid water.  So the process of melting snow robs the air of warmth.  Snow helps the weather get cold and also helps it stay cold. When snow covers the ground, it is possible for the weather to get warmer, but it is a lot harder than without snow.     Meteorologist John Wheeler

 

 

What the Polar Vortex Is… and Isn’t

 

The Polar Vortex is an actual thing, although the term has been badly misused in recent months.  Most cold air outbreaks are caused by high-pressure areas dropping south from the Arctic regions, displacing cold air into the mid-latitudes.  Usually, some part of the Arctic such as Alaska or The Yukon has an accompanying mild spell of weather.  The Polar Vortex, on the other hand, is a circumpolar wind at the Jet Stream level of the atmosphere.  It is not a high-pressure area nor is it a cold front.  The Polar Vortex circulation grows stronger during winter and tends to keep the coldest weather in the hemisphere bottled up over the Polar Regions where it is perpetually dark and bitterly cold in winter.  Sometimes, however, the Polar Vortex weakens or is bent out of shape.  These episodes cause the weather over the Poles to become relatively mild while displacing Polar southward into the mid-latitudes.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

 

It’s Just a Forecast

 

Even as technology improves, weather forecasting is still forecasting.  We are almost never exactly right.  Our goal on a daily basis is to be close enough to be useful, and most of the time, we are.  Sometimes, however, we do miss by a lot, like Monday’s snow storm. Most Twin Cities forecasts on the previous Friday had the heavy snow going south of the Twin Cities.  Over the weekend, most forecasts changed to having it go right through the Twin cities.  But Monday came and snowfall was an inch or two at Bloomington and Inver Grove Heights to six inches in Coon Rapids and Lino Lakes on the north side.  The heavy snow (12-17 inches) fell from St. Cloud to Cambridge.  As a forecaster, myself, I can say that the Twin Cities forecasters did pretty well with the storm.  They got the amounts right and were off by a only hundred miles. That is not bad for a highly energetic fluid dynamics problem covering an area the size of several states.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

 

 

 

Another Cold Winter Looms

The weather will be cold next week.  The coldest of this fall so far.  Below average for the time of year.  Granted, this is only one week and not even really winter yet, but what does this mean for the Climate Prediction Center’s forecast of a warmer than average winter for our region?  Well, this one cold week means nothing.  Many of our warmest winters on record were preceded by cold November weather.  However, there are two big reasons to think this winter might be another cold one.  The snow pack over the higher latitudes of North America, including Siberia, is the most extensive since satellite records began in the 1960s.  This correlates to the winter becoming a very cold one.  Also, there are signs on the Pacific that the expected El Nino is falling apart.  The cold weather this week could just be a harbinger of another very cold winter.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

Already Bitter About Wind Chill

Wind is the element that defines our winter more than any other.  The flat terrain of the Red River Valley is not conducive to extremely cold low temperatures.  We do not experience cold-air drainage on calm nights so we do not get the 50 and 60 below temperatures which occasionally occur in northern Minnesota or (more rarely) central North Dakota.  Fargo Moorhead will almost never make national news for having the coldest temperature in the nation on any particular morning.  Naturally, when it is 50 below in International Falls and just a paltry 25 below here in Fargo Moorhead, it is International Falls that makes the national news.  But those mornings are rarely anything other than calm in International Falls whereas here in the Valley, the wind chill is most certainly a factor.  But wind chill is not the same as temperature, so the sexier temperature gets the notoriety, and we are left feeling bitter in the bitter cold.    Meteorologist John Wheeler

Not So Hard a Freeze

By definition, the Fargo Moorhead region got its first widespread hard freeze on October 9 and 10 when the temperature dropped to 25 and 24 degrees respectively.  But those two mornings have been the only freezing temperatures we have experienced all fall.  Although technically, a temperature of 28 degrees is called a hard freeze or a killing freeze, but this does not necessarily mean all annual plants just give up.  The lack of cold weather has allowed many of the hardier plants to remain alive.  Last weekend I noticed several annual plants in my yard still in bloom.  It has not been an unusually warm fall.  The only record daily high was last Friday when the high of 75 degrees tied the record set in 1989.  It has just been consistently mild.  Such consistency in rare here in the Northern Plains, especially in the transitional season that fall usually is.  The mild weather has also allowed for an unusually colorful leaf display.  Meteorologist John Wheeler

Total Eclipse, 2017

The solar eclipse last Thursday was just a partial eclipse.  Without some sort of safe device for looking at it, you probably didn’t notice anything.  This is because the sun is so bright that it even half-covered it effectively lights our world.  The next solar eclipse visible in North America is August 21, 2017, and it will be a total eclipse in a coast-to-coast, hundred mile wide swath from Oregon to Nebraska to South Carolina.  A total solar eclipse is really something to behold. As the moon blocks the sun, the sky goes black.  If there are no clouds, the stars appear.  Birds stop singing. Wherever crowds are gathered, people break into spontaneous applause.  Some are moved to tears. A couple of truly awe-inspiring minutes pass. Then as the light returns, birds begin to mark their territory again as if it is a new day. People again applaud this rare performance of the spheres.

If you miss the total eclipse in 2017, there will be another over eastern North America in April of 2024, and another across the southern United States in August of 2045.  Solar eclipses are actually more frequent over the Earth than lunar eclipses.  However, lunar eclipses are visible all over the Earth whereas solar eclipses cover very narrow paths.

A lunar eclipse is when Earth gets between the Sun and the Moon.  A solar eclipse is when the Moon gets between Earth and the Sun.      Meteorologist John Wheeler