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

Winter 2013-2014 Statistics

The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) released their analysis of the winter of 2013-2014 last week.  NCDC ranked the period from December 1 through February 28 as the 25th coldest on record for North Dakota.  You may recall locally it was the 16th coldest on record, but western North Dakota was not as cold making the average for the entire state lower in the cold rankings.

Minnesota on the other hand recorded a more evenly spread cold winter throughout that state.  Taken as a whole, NCDC ranked this past winter as the 6th coldest on record in Minnesota.   The past 119 winters are used in these rankings.  Nationally, NCDC ranked the past winter as the 34th coldest on record.

Using other datasets and analysis puts that ranking closer to the Top 10, but no matter what the ranking; most Americans east of the Rocky Mountains experienced a winter that will not soon be forgotten.

The End of Negatives?

Our last below zero reading was a -1 degree temperature that occurred around 2:30 AM on March 5.  The temperature was well above zero much of that night, but the sky cleared just after midnight, the temperature briefly dropped below zero, then the clouds moved back in and the temperature rose to nearly 10 degrees before most people headed to work or school.  In other words, that below zero reading was hardly even noticed.

Yet, that -1 degree reading did push the seasonal total for days with a low below zero to an even 70 days.  Those 70 days would rank the cold season of 2013-2014 as tied for the 14th highest such total on record.  Although, another negative morning is certainly possible, historically after this point they tend to only occur with a deep snow cover, which we currently lack.

Therefore, with any luck, our next negative morning in Fargo Moorhead will be near November 28, which is the average date of our first below zero reading of our next cold season.

Leap Day Troubles

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.

Cold, Not Snowy

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.

The Winter of 2013-2014

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.

The Negative Winter

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.

End of Winter

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.

Cold Without Records

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.

Top 30 For Now

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.