Mild weather surprises,
but also a concern for future
Tuesday, February 14, 2012 10:00 AM
Many of us are wondering what happened to winter this season. Although we had a temporary cold snap last weekend, the winter has been consistently uncharacteristic for Minnesota - warm with few snowstorms.
We aren't the only ones wondering. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has identified January as the fourth warmest January on record for the contiguous United States with temperatures 5.5 degrees above normal. Minnesota was one of 10 states to record their top 10 warmest average temperatures for January.
It has also been the fifth warmest six-month period from August to January ever recorded in the contiguous United States. Forty states, including Minnesota, had warmer than average temperatures and three, including North Dakota, set records. Minnesota didn't set a record, but it was close.
Paul Douglas, a noted state meteorologist notes that the winter period Dec. 1 to Feb. 7 has been the second warmest on record in Minnesota.
In our state, people have been falling through the ice of bodies of water that are usually thoroughly frozen over by this time of year, plants have been showing unusual growth, even buds, and wildlife have been thriving, which is good news for hunters next summer.
There have also been grass fires throughout the winter, a repercussion of the lack of snowfall and resulting snow cover. So far this year, the state has received about a third the usual amount of snow in an average winter.
What's causing this warmth? The jet stream pattern is the culprit, according to Accuweather.com senior meteorologist Michael Pigott. He says this winter the jet stream has been stuck in a west-to-east pattern, which meteorologists call a "zonal flow."
Storms are moving nearly straight west to east, trapping Arctic air to the north. Most winters, there are periods where the jet stream has north and south undulations, which bring Arctic air down to the United States.
The big question, though, is what's ahead for the rest of February into March. It's likely the weeks ahead will look more like what we are having so far in February: Warmer than average, but not as much as earlier this winter, with a few minor cold snaps.
Accuweather.com senior meteorologist Jack Boston predicts we will continue to get a pattern where we're more susceptible to cold air masses coming down. However, that doesn't mean they are going to stay. He notes that cooler temperatures will come in for only a few days and then disappear again.
These intermittent stretches of cooler air will keep the average temperatures closer to normal, even though they will remain above normal.
Of course, who saw this year's record winter coming? Forecasting over a long period of time is tenuous at best.
Although many of us look at the impact of winter on our daily lives, whether it is considered good because we haven't had to shovel or shiver, or bad because we haven't been able to enjoy outdoor winter activities, there is a real concern among farmers about our lack of moisture.
The farm economy is still a key one in midwestern states, but Minnesota, like neighboring states such as Iowa and many directly south, is seeing consequences from the lack of precipitation.
Just as the short dips in the jet stream mean only minor periods of cold weather, they also mean less likelihood of major storms as the more likely scenario is a series of weak clippers bringing just an inch or so of snow.
If that prediction turns out to be true, we could be in trouble as we are already experiencing drought conditions, particularly the western part of our region.
The National Weather Service notes that the drought has already affected area rivers and streams. For example, the flow along the Cedar River near Austin is 70.8 percent of normal. Ground water levels have also decreased. The level near Wasioja in Dodge County has decreased from 16.05 feet on May 6 to 22.75 feet on Jan. 6. The normal ground water level is 20.90 feet.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaborative project of several federal agencies including NOAA, shows that no county in Minnesota is unaffected by the drought, although Houston County has just a sliver in the northwest corner that is in the abnormally dry range.
Fillmore County's eastern half is in the abnormally dry range while the western half is in the moderate drought range. Mower County is mostly in the moderate drought range, but a sliver of the county on the western side, along with nearly all of Dodge County and much of Goodhue County, is in the severe drought range, which continues across southern Minnesota to the South Dakota border.
Moderate drought may not sound like much of an issue, but it means some damage to crops and pastures, high risk of fire, water shortages developing and possible voluntary water use restrictions.
Minnesota doesn't have any areas of extreme or exceptional drought, which has been plaguing Texas and areas in southeastern United States, where scorched fields and wildfires were the norm last summer, but the weather trend isn't promising.
Individual precipitation totals from the National Weather Service show that Preston is 8.78 inches below normal from May 1, 2011, to Jan. 31, 2012, while Spring Grove is 3.42 inches below normal, Lanesboro is 4.98 inches below normal, Rushford is 4.47 inches below normal and Caledonia is 6.37 inches below normal. Grand Meadow in Mower County has the second lowest amount of precipitation in all of southeastern Minnesota as it is 9.07 inches below normal, just slightly better than Austin.
The warm, dry weather may bring hopes of an early spring so we can get a head start on golfing, gardening and other enjoyable outdoor pursuits, but we better hope for more use out of our snowblowers or some good wear on our umbrellas this spring.
Our enjoyment index may take a hit, but the economic index of our region would only strengthen.