Friday, December 11, 2015

Amid cries to "stop being lazy" and "do something already," Winter sleeps on.


With a gentle rain falling, Lavonda Smithson looked skyward and shook her head. She then pointed at patches of her lawn that had turned bright green. "I go outside and I can't tell if it's October or April. Then I realize it's mid-December and I'm like,well then where am I? The fact is, this is the kind of unreliable behavior we have come to expect this time of year. I'm tired of it."

Similar frustrations have been expressed throughout the Upper Midwest recently, amid growing concerns that Winter is not holding up its end of a longstanding agreement it has with the region. Trevor Davidson of Cloquet, MN, formed the "Four Months, Nothing Less Coalition," in an attempt to get Winter to uphold the minimum requirements of its agreement. "I know some people think it's great to have such a laid-back season, but we want it to make good on at least one of its promises. One. I mean, if you can't snow, be cold. Do something already, you owe us!"

Davidson's group is part of a larger movement that includes a wide spectrum of interests, from local grassroots activists, to deep-pocketed organizations supporting the controversial "3-3-3" bill, which would mandate three three-inch snowstorms per month for three consecutive months in every Minnesota county.

Although organizers have had little success negotiating with Winter, some feel that recent tactics have begun to work. According to Davidson, "We put emotional sanctions on the table, and that seemed to work: If you won't give us what you promised, then we're not going to talk about and complain about you, and you'll quickly find yourself in an unsustainable position, in which you are deprived of the feelings of importance you require to feed your enormous ego." 

Others, like industry observer Benjamin Rosenthal, are more cautious. "I appreciate what the FMNLC and others are doing, but you can hardly call it a success. Minneapolis is going to to get soaked this weekend. With rain. We are going to have record highs and thunderstorms in southwestern Wisconsin. Even next Tuesday's weather system, which is shaped exactly like a winter storm, may very well be 5 or 10 degrees too warm! We see a cool-down coming, but temperatures may remain warmer than normal the entire time, right on through Christmas, and possibly even the end of the month. So yes, I think it's premature to declare victory, and it's a bit shortsighted anyway."

Tensions between Winter and the Upper-Midwest escalated early last week, when leaked video posted to Youtube showed the season sleeping on a friend's couch during Thanksgiving weekend. In the video, an alarm is clearly audible, and rather than springing to action, Winter is seen shifting its weight, and then falling onto the floor. Media expert Ruby Krantz has described the video as "a horrifying and graphical display of seasonal lethargy not fit for the squeamish, decent-natured, or elderly."

Activists like Davidson say the video is proof that Winter is shirking its responsibilities. "You don't do that if you respect the agreements you have made, plain and simple."

Rosenthal, however, says it's not so plain and simple. "When Winter entered into those agreements, it had no idea that people were going to emit almost a trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. You can hardly blame it for underperforming in those conditions. I look at that video, and I don't see a lazy or irresponsible season, I see a season that is sick, and probably depressed from having lost its vitality. We might be asking a bit much of Winter at this point.

Meanwhile, the recent changes in Winter have caused neighboring and competing Fall to re-examine its strategy. A marketing executive who wished to remain anonymous because he was illegally sharing confidential information, said that Fall is planning for a range of scenarios, up to and including taking over the months of December and January. "There's a saying in business that you can either cry over your competitor's death bed, or you can exploit their vulnerable customers with almost no resistance. We prefer the latter of course, so we have launched an ambitious initiative to capture a greater share of the winter-spender's wallet."

Accordingly, the Fall website recently debuted several new ads, featuring forward-looking catchphrases like "Fall. It's what's for winter,"  and "Orange is the new white." According to the anonymous source, "sure, we loved winter too, but we also need to move forward and do what's best for our users. So, here's to a speedy and painless death, Winter."  

Lavonda Smithson, for one, isn't interested in Fall completely taking over the end of the calendar. "That sounds to me like five months of mud and gray skies. Are they putting that in their advertisements? I'd rather just hope for Winter and celebrate it when it does make it here, but maybe without expecting it or depending on it so much."

(PSST! If you happen to enjoy this sophomoric treatment of actual science, then you must join us on Jan 28th at Bryant Lake Bowl!)

(PSST v 2! I routinely send variations on this sort of nonsense as a newsletter. Sign up for it here!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Drought faces exciting lineup of challengers

Minneapolis, MN - Mar 30, 2015

The Upper Midwest Drought of 2015, aka "the Natural" (also often known as "Dry-Heaver"), emerged from the chaos of the recent winter as the clear victor, having prevented significant snowfall from accumulating over much of the Upper Midwest for multiple months on end. And now, with a new season upon us, this drought faces a barrage of new challengers, each with a slightly different style and approach.

Last week, the drought met an earnest newcomer, "Snowband Sal," which dropped some heavy snow over southern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin. But the current champ seemed to shrug it off with defiant arrogance, and then later posted this taunting photo below, which shows Sal's footprint within a continued precipitation deficit over the entire region.

This Wednesday, the drought faces a strong low pressure system that claims it will wobble the champion with thunderstorms and heavy rainfall. This system, which calls itself "The Reverser" and has been boasting about its "1.2 inches of precipitable water gone wild," believes it has what it takes to send the drought packing. "Our plan is to hit southern Minnesota with thunderstorms, thunderstorms, and more thunderstorms on Wednesday afternoon and evening. And after that, we're going to Iowa and Wisconsin, where we're will party right through the night. With thunderstorms"

The champ, however, sees it differently. "The Reverser is a serious challenger, but I think it is pretty one-dimensional and has underestimated my reach. I am not only in southern Minnesota. I am in western and northern Minnesota, the eastern Dakotas, Kansas, Texas. I have very strong ties to California. Everything I have seen tells me The Reverser is going to work narrow and concentrated, instead of widespread. Really!?! You're going to undo my quarter-million square miles of coverage with maybe ten thousand square miles of heavy rain? That doesn't add up. You need more than to defeat The Natural, baby!"

The drought did want fans to know it wasn't taking anything for granted, however, and had a creative defensive game plan. "These things can be reversed in blink of an eye; I know I won't be here forever. But I intend to make my stay memorable. I am going to do everything I can to prevent or at least neutralize the effects of The Reverser. Look for warm, dry, and windy conditions before it arrives, which I hope will remove even more water from the soil and make it harder to unseat me. And watch for mild and dry conditions after it leaves. I am hoping fans will have forgotten about this chump by the end of the year."

Even if The Reverser fails, enthusiasts point to next Monday (April 6), and the anticipated arrival of the weather system known as Big Steady Jr. According to observer and analyst Benjamin Rosenthal, "Big Steady Jr. has been making noise on the models for over a week now, and has the appealing combination of widespread precipitation, a long duration, and cool temperatures--it even looks like it could produce heavy snow in northern Minnesota. If you've seen any of those promos that have been leaked, some of them look ferocious, though I must admit, others look pretty run-of-the-mill. Of course, BSJ's upper-level energy just left Kamchatka, and its surface features don't even exist yet, so it's a bit premature to make serious bets about this event and whether it will pose a real challenge to The Natural."

And the current champ isn't losing focus. "Everyone knows about the bad blood between my family and Big Steady Junior's family, and I would like nothing more than to watch BSJ's remnants evaporate after failing to unseat me, as a little payback for 2007 [when the Big Steady family tag-teamed with the The Thunderground in a regime-changing series of overnight attacks on the reigning drought]. But right now I'm locked on Wednesday April 1, and the fool they call The Reverser, who I plan to dry-heave out of existence. Gwaaahh!"

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Calm Down, Minneapolis.

Whenever a major winter weather event in a different part of the country gets media attention, Minnesota's inner snob comes out. We like to pretend we own winter. We've made our winters legendary through storytelling, and nobody ever comes here to find out if we're lying. Some of it is legitimate. I said some.

Minnesota is a big state, and in the far north, it can get really cold. This kind of thing is not all that unusual. In the winter of 2013-14, some lucky towns saw daily low temperatures fall to zero (F) or colder more than 100 times.    

Now, the the Minneapolis-St. Paul or "Twin Cities" metropolitan area has over 3 million inhabitants who do not live anywhere near the far northern part of state but like to pretend that they endure the most brutal winters on the planet. Sure, no metropolitan region in North America is both larger and colder than the Twin Cities in the winter, and the few in the world that qualify are in China (some of this depends on how one defines a metropolitan region). So that's cool. We should stick to those facts.

But the winters we endure in the Twin Cities are nothing like what our northern Minnesota brethren experience. In 2013-14, Minneapolis had 53 daily lows of zero or colder. Not 100. 53. The coldest temperatures were not deep into the -40s, as they were up north, but instead in the low-mid -20s, which, yawn. Minneapolis has not even cracked -30 since 1996.

But pretending you're colder than you are and co-opting the outstate identity is not even what I came here to discuss. I want to discuss an even greater offense: pretending you're snowy.

As a major snowstorm in the northeastern US set the internet on fire and began dominating news coverage, Twin Citiesfolk took note, rather snootily.

Cities in the Northeast and New England were expecting 20-30 inches of snow, maybe more, and the winds were expected to be raging, with gusts over 60 mph.

Meanwhile, it was 45 degrees in Minneapolis. But do you think that stopped the eye-rolling and head-shaking? Nope. Here are some select quotes from out and about, in the elevator etc.

  • "Oh, if they think that's bad, they should try coming here. We get that kind of stuff all the time."
  • "Usually we get the big ones, so it's good to see someone else get it for a change."
  • "Whiners. Welcome to Minnesota. Ha!"  

What?!? No.

We do cold. We do subzero high temperatures. We do long winters during which the snow never goes away.

But we don't do 20-30 inch snowstorms with 60+ mph wind gusts. Well, the area near Lake Superior does, but that's not what people in Minneapolis are talking about.

Minneapolis has never recorded a seasonal snowfall total in excess of 100 inches. No calendar day on record has received more than 20 inches, and that amount has been observed only once during any 24-hour period. Daily snowfalls of a foot are somewhat rare, occurring only about once per decade.

Boston and New York City, despite having less average annual snowfall than Minneapolis, both tend to get more frequent heavy snows, and their largest snowstorms are bigger than ours. They both have had daily snow in excess of 20 inches, and Boston has received a foot of snow in a calendar day with more than twice the frequency of Minneapolis; NYC's frequency is about 2/3 greater than that of Minneapolis.

Now, have a look at this chart, comparing the 10 largest calendar day snowfalls at Minneapolis, Boston, NYC, and for good measure, Duluth, which is in that part of Minnesota that gets New England-style heavy snowstorms.


See who trails the pack 70% of the time? Yup, Minneapolis. Its largest snowstorms cannot compete with Boston's, New York's, and Duluth's.

So calm down, Minneapolis. Our winters are not as severe as we pretend they are, and we certainly do not own snowstorms.

Note 1: To the obvious question about why not use full snow events rather than calendar days, the quick answer is that this is much easier. It becomes difficult to tease out where a given event began and ended, without additional information. 

Note 2: Obviously, Boston, NYC and Duluth are just examples of cities with more frequent and larger snowstorms than Minneapolis. None of them are close to being the snowiest locations in their respective states.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Winter is warming without getting warmer?

What's that you say?

You may have noticed that recent winters in the Upper Midwest have been warmer than less recent ones. Winter is warming, and nobody disputes that. Here are the average December-through-February temperatures at Minneapolis, back to 1900.

Impressive. You can see a clear winter warming signal, especially since the late 1970s. I'd also like to call your attention to the up-down-up pattern: warming in the first few decades, then cooling, then warming again for the last few decades. You will see a lot more of this pattern in other posts, and I mentioned it at the bottom of my post about wet winter days.

As a climatologist, I am fascinated by how this wintertime warming is composed. The wintertime average temperature for any given year, which you see above on any one of the stops along the blue trace, is essentially the average of all the average daily temperatures. And each average daily temperature is the average of the official high and the official low temperature for that day. So, are the highs and the lows getting warmer? Just a subset of them perhaps? Is the whole of winter warming? How uniform is this phenomenon across the season?

The image below, and feel free to mouse over it to get annual values, shows the single highest temperature each winter (red/upper trace), and the average of the 15 warmest high temperatures from each winter (orange/lower trace). I tossed in the 10-year averages, calculated on the tenth year (so the value for 1997 is the average of 1988-1997).

When compared with the top graph, this one makes it clear that the increase in average winter temperatures has nothing to do with the behavior of the warmest days of the season, which are essentially unchanged, plus and minus normal variability. You do not see the dramatic, multi-decade increase you see in the top graph. The warmest days are not getting warmer.

Nor are the warmest nights are getting warmer. The graph below shows the warmest daily low temperature(s) of each winter. Again, you'll find nothing resembling the major increase we see in the last few decades of the first graph in this post.

Now, I cannot project these trends into the future with much confidence. They really only show you what has happened so far. And so far, while our winters have warmed dramatically, our warmest winter temperatures have not. It's almost counter-intuitive, I know. But it's true.

So how can our average winter temperatures have increased so much without our warmest days budging at all? The answer appears to be in our coldest days. They're simply not that cold. Anymore.
Note: this information was gathered in support of research conducted with and for Hennepin County Emergency Management

Thursday, January 15, 2015

It's not that cold. Really.

Well, this may come as a true victory for all the climate-curmudgeons out there (you know, the ones who invalidate you by telling you they remember it stormier, hotter, colder, snowier), but the recent cold in the Midwest has not been unusual. Now, you can look at the actual temperatures, and their departures from normal (see below, courtesy of the Midwest Regional Climate Center), and tell me I'm cracked. Clearly it's been colder than normal. But I'm telling you, this isn't unusual.

Well, actually it has been unusual, but not because of how cold it's been. It's been unusual because of how not cold it's been.

It's mid-January, and the region is now in its climatologically-coldest time of the of season, which will peak (in terms of statistically-averaged coldness) between now and th 28th in most areas. The cold temperatures we have been experiencing are likely (though not at all guaranteed) to be the coldest of the season. At Minneapolis, that would mean a wintertime low of -11 (F). At International Falls, it would mean -28. People from outside the region may find either of those values unthinkable. But to those in the region, if those are indeed season-lows, they are unthinkably warm. And this is the way it's been going.

Below you will see a graph of the coldest temperature of winter at Minneapolis, from 1900, right through the 2013-14 season (in purple). I have also included the average of the 15 coldest days of winters (in blue), along with 10-year averages of both values. One thing is abundantly clear: the coldest temperatures of winter are warming rapidly.

The coldest temperature of the year has warmed from the -20s (F), into the -10s. For all the hype it garnered, the "Polar Vortex" episode from early January 2014, only brought the temperature down to -23 at Minneapolis. You can look at 2013, and then mouse over the purple trace on the image, and see just how many times the lowest value of winter was that cold or colder. It's kind of astonishing, how quickly we've lost this defining component of Upper Midwest winters. You can also see that -11 stands among the warmest, in a three-way tie for third place.

We can examine the issue a bit differently, as ask how frequently temperatures have fallen below certain thresholds, historically. In this example, I'll just use -10, again at Minneapolis.

For the period up until about 1990, temperatures at Minneapolis reached -10 (F) or colder an average of 11.8 times per winter. From 1991 onward, that average has fallen to 6.3, and the rapid decline from the peak in 1973 is pretty obvious.

And of course, it's not just the coldest nights that are getting warmer. You know those cold days, when the high temperature doesn't even come close to zero? Those are getting warmer too.

So, the coldest nights aren't as cold as they used to be, the coldest days are not as cold as they used to be, and we don't fall below certain cold-weather thresholds as much as we used to.

All of this, by the way, is true for the whole of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. But maybe you're skeptical because Minneapolis is a big city with all sorts of urban heat contamination (which is true). So here is the annual frequency of lows at or below -25 at the Sandy Lake Dam, which is part of the US Historical Climate Network.

And where is the Sandy Lake Dam? Exactly. Hopefully you can accept that the pattern of increased temperatures (and decreased frequency of cold temperatures) is not unique to Minneapolis. No matter how you look at it, one thing is obvious region-wide: we do not get as cold as we used to.

And the temperatures we have been experiencing? They're not that cold. Really.

Note: this information was gathered in support of research conducted with and for Hennepin County Emergency Management

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rainy Winter Days

Mean monthly temperatures at Minneapolis, 1981-2010. From MRCC/cli-MATE  
December 2014 has been a strange one here in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. After one of the coldest Novembers on record, including a top-10 showing in Minneapolis, December is going to end up warmer than November (or nearly so) in many places. And that is no easy feat, considering that November is typically 13-16 degrees warmer than December. The only way to do it is to have an unusually cold November and then an unusually warm December. Check and check.

A lot of people have complained, or maybe just noticed, that it seems to be raining a lot this December. That is, raining rather than snowing. It's especially noticeable because November had been so cold, and so snowy (in some areas). Moreover, we have had a formidable run of cloudiness, such that by December 26, many parts of the Minnesota will have had 19 out of 20 days with cloudy or mostly cloudy conditions.

But how unusual are rainy days in this region, in the winter? Unfortunately, you can't just query some database and come up with a clean answer, so I took the "threaded" record of Minneapolis back to the winter of 1900-01, and extracted days with precipitation but either no snow or a trace of snow, and also with high temperatures exceeding 32 degrees (in order to exclude ice storms). There are other ways to do it for sure, but this one allows me to bypass fussing over snow-to-liquid ratios.

The "average" winter, defined here as December through February, has about 2.8 wet days at Minneapolis. As the graph below shows, the history of wet days during winter has a double-peak pattern, with a long period during the 1910s through 30s that tended to be above-average, followed by an at-or-below-average period into the 1980s, which ultimately gave way to the current era, in which we are more above-average than any other part of the record. Since 1990, only one winter in Minneapolis has failed to have two or more wet days.

As of this post, Minneapolis has had 4 wet days this December (and thus, this winter). That puts it above the long-term average but not into uncharted territory. Of the three winter months, December is most likely to have wet days, and accounts for about 49% of them (155 of the 319 identified). There were ten other Decembers in the record with four or more wet days (including one with 8 and another with 7). So, again, above average, but not at all standing alone.
Displaying image.png
Wet days at Minneapolis, during winter from the 1900-01 winter into the beginning of the 2014-15 winter (plot ends December 22, 2014). The gray trace is a 5-year average centered on the reference year; the yellow trace is 10-year average ending on the reference year.  

Two notes: 1) the "up-down-up" pattern you see on graph, especially in the traces, is all over the Upper Midwest climate record. You'll see it with rainfall, with snow, and with temperatures; lots of things took a dip in the middle of the last century. I'll post more on that later. 2) The "threaded" climate record of Minneapolis is assembled from several different locations over time, to allow a longer total record. More info here.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bad News is SO Much Better than No News. Seriously

We've all been in that situation where we don't feel like telling someone something and so we don't communicate with them promptly. I don't know about you, but for me it's always been something like:
  • I don't want them to know bad news
  • I haven't actually done what's needed to give them a response
  • I am consumed by something and feel like I can't do anything else
I'm sure there are a number of other reasons too. And obviously, we get to decide how to respond if something is not another person's business or if it is only their business ambiguously. I'm talking about when it is absolutely their business and we actually owe them an answer, either out of obligation, out of respect, or both.

Having been on the receiving end of silence of the but-it-is-my-business variety an awful lot recently, I have realized how utterly powerless we are when we do not get the information we are seeking. It's especially true when we have to make a series of decisions or when other people are depending on us to act based on the information we receive. Even if entirely by accident, silence can be quite the implement of psychological destruction.

Sure, it is true that someone can make inferences from our silence, but inferences are just smartly-dressed assumptions, and assumptions just plain-old suck. They actually suck 4,327 gallons of same-day hog manure that has spent exactly six hours in warm sunlight. That bad. People don't want to have to make inferences based on silence. They don't want to spin ridiculous scenarios in their heads, trying to figure out what's going on. They just want the answer, even if it's the less-awesome one.

So if someone asks something of us:
  • How is [this project that affects me] going?
  • Any updates on That Big Decision that affects me?
  • Want to hang out Saturday?
  • Have you talked to so-and-so about This Important Thing yet?
They are asking us for an answer. They may hope it's a certain answer, but nowhere in the question do they say, "and go ahead and remain silent if you can't give me the answer you think I want."

So we owe it to them to give an answer, as quickly as possible. We need to get it out of our heads that it's better off if we just don't tell them we haven't made any progress, or that things didn't go well and we had to start over, or that no, This doesn't bode well for That. That's all still information they can use, and they want it. And when we do not give it to them, we are not helping them one bit. And we are only badly shielding ourselves from accountability anyway. It's going to come out one way or the other, so we may as well give it the clearest path possible.

Despite our faulty assumptions, bad news is almost always better than none at all, and so we owe it to ourselves, and the people around us, to figure out how to deliver it. 

Does that sound right? This was pretty short (for me), and rolled off the fingers pretty easily, so I'd love to hear what I may have missed, and of course what other people think!