It has been a very cold winter, yet, not only have no record lows been set, we have not even come close. February will be ending quite cold but the odds of Fargo Moorhead recording a record low this week does not look likely. Although we are rapidly approaching March, the record lows are still near -30 degrees.
Back on February 20, 2008 the temperature at Hector Int’l dropped to -31 degrees which did set a record for that date and we would likely need a reading that low to break any records with our current cold snap. One factor that will hinder the temperature from breaking any records is our current snow pack. Although deep, it is crusty and hard and not as conducive to strong radiational cooling as fresh more powdery snow. In other words, hard crusty snow will help keep the temperature up this week, meaning, although it will likely be a very cold finish to February, had we recorded some fresh snow cover recently we would be even colder.
The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) released their statistical analysis for the month of January late last week. According to NCDC, North Dakota as a whole recorded the 65th coldest January on record. If that surprises you, although Fargo was nearly 5 degrees below average last month, it was the 59th coldest January on record locally, plus, western North Dakota actually finished the mont
h of January with above average temperatures keeping last month close to normal on a statewide level.
Minnesota on the other hand recorded below average temperatures statewide. NCDC ranked January as the 24th coldest on record for Minnesota. Nationally, with the exception of a few New England states, all states east of the Mississippi finished in the Top 30 coldest on record. On the opposite extreme most states west of the Great Plains finishing in the Top 30 warmest on record.
Therefore, just a few states in the center of the country and New England finished the month of January near average.
It has certainly been a cold winter; yet, in Fargo Moorhead no specific cold records have been set. Elsewhere around the United States it has also been cold with more notable cold weather statistics. Toledo, Ohio for example, dropped to -15 degrees this past Wednesday morning for the second time this winter, in 140 years of records, this was the first time that the city hit -15 in two different months.
The Twin Cities, even with a significant urban heat island around the airport, has dropped below zero 44 times this winter, only four away from breaking into the Top 10. In Fargo Moorhead, we need 17 more days to break into the Top 10. Chicago has already recorded enough days to reach the Top 10 for most below zero days in that city. Snow locally has been uneventful, but Detroit, Michigan has already recorded enough snow to rank in their Top 10, plus the city recorded their snowiest January on record.
Yes, our winter has been tough, but other locations have by their standards fared even worse.
The past 21 days have all recorded a low temperature below zero. Although nowhere near the record of 44 straight days set in early 1936 (with 37 of those days recording a high and low at 0 degrees or lower), it has still been historically a very impressive stretch.
In the past we have recorded numerous instances of mostly below zero lows for periods of three weeks, but usually the streak is broken with one or two nights being slightly above zero. Another interesting feature of the negative streak of the past three weeks was the lack of extreme cold. Long periods of below zero often lead to at least one or two nights near a record low, but that was not the case this time. In many ways this winter reminds me of the summer of 2011 which was one of the warmest on record, but with no extremely hot days, just persistently above average.
This winter has recorded no extremely cold weather, but it has certainly been consistently cold.
Edit: The low Saturday was 1 degree ending the streak at 21.
Some of the largest negative temperature anomalies (departure from average) in the Northern Hemisphere this winter have been near the Great Lakes. Therefore, it is no surprise that ice coverage on the five Great Lakes is very high this winter. The five lakes combined were 87% ice covered as of last Friday.
That was the highest level since February of 1996. Lake Superior is almost completely frozen over with 95% ice coverage. It was near that point in March, 2009, but the last time the lake was considered 100% ice covered was in March, 1996. Lake Huron is also almost completely iced over with 95% coverage, Lake Michigan was at 80% coverage and Lake Erie was 96% frozen over as of last Friday. Although Lake Ontario is the smallest of the five Great Lakes in size, it has three times the volume of Lake Erie, meaning it is a much deeper lake and harder to freeze.
That is one reason why Lake Ontario has the lowest ice coverage this winter with just 33% of that lake frozen over.
One of the most asked questions lately has been how does this winter rank in comparison to past winters. Snow wise, this winter has been quite ordinary, but of course when this question comes up, it is almost always referenced for temperatures. Through Monday, February 10, the average temperature since December 1 was 3.5 degrees. That would rank that period as the 23rd coldest on record.
As a comparison, it would be similar to the average temperature for the same period during the winters of 2008-2009, 1996-1997 and 1995-1996. The biggest difference would be all those winters had significantly more snowfall to this point. Based on the warmer temperatures that have moved into the area and are expected to remain for at least the next week (most days), that ranking will slowly drop. When climatological winter ends on February 28, we may not even finish in the Top 30, yet, no matter the ranking, this is clearly a noticeably colder than average winter.
The lack of snow in the past couple of weeks have made for excellent travel conditions on the main roads, but many city streets and parking lots remain ice covered. That will likely be changing soon and not necessarily for the reason you may think. The one obvious reason that the secondary roads will be improving soon would be the rise in air temperatures, but there is another more subtle reason, the Sun.
As the Sun angle slowly increases, you will notice even on days with an air temperature well below freezing, that melting will take place on area roads on a sunny day. Although the stronger Sun will help with clearing the roads and parking lots from the abundance of ice, it also tends to cause problems. The melting that occurs will freeze nearly every night meaning slick spots each night.
That melt and freeze cycle also creates something that will be very common in the coming weeks, potholes.
Today is the 50th day with a low temperature below zero this season. The long-term average is 48 such days, so we have already surpassed that milestone with at a good month of potential negative lows ahead of us.
Perhaps even more noticeable is the fact that on 12 of those days, the high temperature also failed to get to 0 degrees. The long-term average for below zero high temperatures is 10 such days. Two of the days with a high below zero, the high was in the double digits below zero with the coldest being a high of -14 on December 31. We average two days per winter with a high of -10 degrees or colder. Considering it will become increasingly more difficult to remain that cold as our days continue to get longer, the odds are pretty high we will not record another -10 degree or lower high this winter.
But another single digit negative high is definitely a possibility.
It was 30 years ago today that area residents woke up to the aftermath of one of the worst blizzards in modern history. February 4, 1984 started off mild and sunny. Although there was a Traveler’s Advisory issued for an expected drastic change in the weather later that day. It was a Saturday, meaning many people were traveling to and from Fargo and other communities to do some shopping.
That afternoon about one inch fell over a slightly crusted 12 inches of snow as the previous days had been around freezing. But suddenly the wind picked up and a wall of white enveloped Fargo Moorhead with the wind gusting around 70 mph. That strong wind quickly scoured the thin crust on the snow cover making for 16 hours of severe blowing snow. With near zero visibility and travelers quickly trying to get home, many ended up stranded and spent the night trapped in their vehicle.
Tragically, four people died of carbon monoxide poisoning on 19th Avenue North during the night with 18 other deaths reported in North Dakota and Minnesota.
December 2013 finished as the 11th coldest on record. January 2014 finished as the 59th coldest on record. Combined, December and January were the 27th coldest such period since records started in 1881 (Grand Forks recorded 20th coldest). The average temperature the last two months was 4.3 degrees which is 7.4 degrees below normal. The most recent such period colder than what we recorded this year was back in 2008.
One of the more impressive statistics from that period was the number of below zero days observed. There were 43 such days in the past two months that tied the winter of 2008-2009 for the most this century. That was also the 8th highest total for those two months combined on record. Total snowfall for the 62 days in December and January was 25.8 inches, slightly above average, but because we recorded only 0.3 inches in November and a trace in October, for the season, Fargo Moorhead is running several inches below normal, at least for now.