Snow Drought and El Nino This Winter 2.9.24

This winter, we’ve seen surprisingly little snow and warmer-than-normal temperatures. 

After last winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that “from heavy snow to strong winds and mixed precipitation, the 2022-2023 winter season was one for the record books!”

Snow totals of 12 to 15 feet here in the Arrowhead put us into the top ten snowiest winters on record. But are we in a snow drought?

According to the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Glossary of Meteorology, “snow drought occurs when there is a period of abnormally low snowpack for the time of year in question.” 

The 2022/23 winter was affected by a La Nina climate event. With La Nina,  one would expect record-low temperatures as well. But the result last year was a snowier and warmer-than-average winter.

After three years of El Nina, her bigger brother, El Nino, took over our weather this past October in an unpredictable but repeating pattern. 

El Nino arises from warmer than normal surface waters on the equator that flow up the central and eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, and he hangs around for nine months or more. 

Changing global wind patterns bring El Nino to our region, producing warmer winters with less snowfall. 

To some extent, this warmer winter is also a result of ongoing climate change. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports that “In Minnesota, a typical winter day is now several degrees warmer than in the middle of the 20th century, and average low temperatures during January, our coldest month, have increased by over 10 degrees F in some areas.”

NOAA and other agencies track the snowfall year from July 1 to June 30, so we won’t know how this season's snowfall compares for a while. But if we set records this year, it won’t be for the most snow or the deepest cold. It’ll be the opposite.

The snowpack acts as a natural reservoir, storing water from winter precipitation to supply water throughout the spring and summer. On its Facebook page at the end of January, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Duluth published an analysis of the snowpack in its region. Looking at snow depth and snow water equivalent (the amount of water held in the snow), they conclude that the snowpack in January was less than 10% of normal.

The AMS glossary states, “Reductions in snowpack can negatively impact the recreation and tourism industries.” We won’t know what those impacts will be for several months.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at Colorado University, the other effect of the snow melt of recent weeks and lack of snowpack is warmer temperatures. 

NSIDC states, “Because snow is highly reflective, a vast amount of sunlight that hits the snow is reflected back into space instead of warming the planet. Without snow cover, the ground absorbs about four to six times more of the sun's energy.” 

With warmer temperatures and few significant snowfalls here, it’s important to note that the latest measurable snowfall in Minnesota, 1.5 inches, occurred in Koochching County on June 4, 1935. 

So, there's still hope if you’re looking for more snow.

Minnesota weather has always been unpredictable. That’s what we mean when we say, “Ahh, this is typical Minnesota weather.”