Updated: October 22, 2021 01:31 PM
Created: October 20, 2021 12:45 PM
As the last of the leaves hang on to the trees, winter is just around the corner. Chief meteorologist Justin Liles has been digging into his records, and comparing the data to current models. He has identified patterns that point to this year being very similar to one in our recent past.
The upcoming winter season for the Northland will be influenced by how unusually warm Lake Superior is as of mid-October and a La Nina weather pattern. Based on past forecasts, Justin believes this pattern is very similar to the 2012-2013 winter season when Duluth received nearly 130" of snow. The WDIO Storm Track Weather team looks at the important role the summer and fall will play in this year’s winter predictions.
Justin says the mild temperatures this fall could impact how much lake effect snow we see this season. Meteorologist Brandon Weathers says the key ingredients needed for lake effect snow are warm water, cold air, and steady winds crossing a large section of the lake.
Most commonly in the Lake Superior area, winds flow from the northwest and direct heavy lake effect snow along the South Shore of Lake Superior. This makes Hurley, Wisconsin the snowiest spot in the state. Hurley’s season record is 295.4” for the winter of 1996-1997.
This year, Lake Superior is warmer than usual. Keep in mind, we’re coming off of the warmest summer on record for Duluth, and July was the hottest month on record globally.
Our hot summer has been followed by a warmer than normal fall through mid-October. The continuing above normal temperatures has made Lake Superior warmer at this time than on previous records. NOAA Coast Watch has data for the average water surface temperature for Lake Superior going back to 1995. October's average surface temperature as of October 20th is 56 degrees which is the warmest of the 26-year record.
Warm waters going into the season could translate to less ice cover. Less ice on Lake Superior and more open water could be another factor contributing to a snowy winter for the South Shore.
Here are the averages for the South Shore.
This year, we are expecting snow totals along the South Shore to be similar to the winter of 2012-2013.
Amounts typically increase from west to east. We are projecting that the snow totals along the South Shore will be over 100" for Douglas and Bayfield counties, over 140" for Ashland and Iron counties, and over 200” is possible in Gogebic & Ontonagon counties.
While the South Shore tends to get the heaviest lake effect snow totals, winds aren’t always out of the northwest. If we end up in a weather pattern with easterly winds, the warm waters could lead to a snowier than normal season for the North Shore as well.
The upcoming winter season will also be influenced by a La Nina. Meteorologist Sabrina Ullman takes us down memory lane and shows us some of the biggest snow storms during a La Nina year.
La Nina is an irregular, naturally occurring cycle that takes place every two to seven years. In a normal year, trade winds blow east to west over the Pacific Ocean, pushing warm surface waters towards Asia. During certain years, the trade winds are stronger than usual. This causes cooler water to surface in the eastern pacific which leads to winter patterns changing.
The gulf coast tends to have a dry and warm winter during La Nina years. For us, however, a cooler winter with more snow is possible.
Althought La Nina has been historically associated with seasons both above and below normal snow totals, let's take a look at some notable Northland La Nina winters.
The winter of 1964-1965 was notable for several reasons. This weak La Nina season had 110.9" of snow. 17.2 inches of that snow fell on just one day on March 17th. That winter finally ended on May 28th. However, a weak La Nina year has also been related to seasons that fell below normal. The 1984-1985 season only received 68" of snow. However, a two-day blizzard in March brought winds clocked at 90 mph at the Aerial Lift Bridge. The winds piled snow into 20-foot drifts in Duluth.
It's worth noting that a moderate La Nina occured during the snowiest season on record in Duluth. The winter of 1995-1996 topped off at 135.4".
Looking at 2012-2013, just shy of a weak La Nina, Duluth saw 129.4" for the third snowiest season. One storm brought 17.7" of snow to Duluth from April 17-19.
With all of this in mind, what can Northlanders expect this season?
Justin projects this La Nina will weaken throughout the winter, which means everything is setting up to be like the winter of 2012-2013.
Remember, we are coming off the warmest summer on average on record. The last time this happened was the summer of 2012. The following winter was a weak La Nina and one of the snowiest on record. The 2012-2013 season turned out to be the 3rd snowiest on record, but it didn't start that way.
The first few months, November-January, only saw 33.3" of snowfall. Justin says the region will see the same start to winter this year. The Northland got its first good taste of snow alongside its helping of turkey on Thanksgiving 2012. Justin expects we will see the same conditions around this Thanksgiving.
More snow is likely around December 8. Considering our warmer summer and fall and a warmer Lake Superior, we're calling for more mixed precipitation events bringing a combination of icy conditions and snow. Justin says one of these messy systems could roll through around New Year’s.
Our coldest stretch of weather will be around January 20-25 when daytime highs will be single to double digits below zero. We'll see another round of bitter cold at the beginning of February. February marks the start of when our winter weather will really kick in.
Nearly 20" of snow will fall in February. Another 25" will fall in March which would place it in the top 10 on record. April will likely be the snowiest month of the season with over 35" of snow. Justin says most of the Northland will end up with over 100" of snowfall for the 2021-2022 season.
In short, expect a lot of snowfall. Winter recreation activities may have a slow start, but could ultimately continue later into the season. As winter keeps us in its grip into the spring, we may even see snow in May. Ice could remain on some northern lakes for the fishing openers as it did in 2013.
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