State Climatologist talks southeast MN weather

The weather throughout fall and during the transition to winter can only be described as interesting. It’s been awhile since I was doing play-by-play for a high school football game during early November and actually had to take my winter jacket off because the press box was actually quite comfortable. I would imagine outside chores have been much less taxing during the nice fall weather too.

Conditions are going to change at some point. We know that here in southeast Minnesota. Colder weather and snow will be coming starting next week, but the question is how cold and how much?

State Climatologist Mark Seeley talks southeast Minnesota weather

Mark Seeley is a climatologist with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. (photo from mprnews.org)

Mark Seeley of the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. He’s a professor, a climatologist, and the main guy Minnesota media has turned to with weather questions for decades. I first met Mark while at KLGR radio in Redwood Falls. He was at the annual Farmfest event down the road near Morgan, Minnesota, and a fellow broadcaster said I needed to talk to Mark if I wanted to do a weather segment.

My most recent weather assignment comes from my freelance reporting job with Bluff Country News Group. We wanted to know what the upcoming winter would look like so I gave Mark a call and had a visit. The 2016 calendar year weather conditions in southeast Minnesota have been record-setting, with too much heat and moisture. I wanted to know how much heat and moisture have hit the area and this is what Mark had to say:

Keeping a weather eye on Minnesota

“Persistent.”  Not exactly the word many Minnesotans may choose to describe this winter, but it’s appropriate, according to Mark Seely, University of Minnesota Extension climatologist.

U of Mn Extension climatologist Mark Seely (photo from minnesotaalumni.org)

U of Mn Extension climatologist Mark Seely (photo from minnesotaalumni.org)

 

According to a recent Google search, the word ‘persistent’ has many interesting synonyms:  tenacious, determined, single-minded, relentless, interminable, and uninterrupted.  Seely said the reason all these words fit is it hasn’t been this consistently cold in Minnesota and the Midwest in a long time. In fact, the Minnesota Public Radio website calls this “the coldest winter in 30 years.”

 

Looking back

 

Seely said the interesting thing about this bitterly cold winter is, “it didn’t necessarily start early.  The winter that we know it as, frankly, didn’t start until the first week of December.”  Since then, Seely said the state has been in a deep freeze, the likes of which it hasn’t seen in some time.

 

“Since December, it’s been the coldest weather, by any measure, since the winter of 81-82.”  Winter this consistently cold is a new experience for many young Midwesterners:

 

Seely said the Midwest has had colder winters, but few that have been this persistent.  “It has been so consistently cold, we’ve had many of our observers report large numbers of nights with below zero readings.”

How this winter stacks up against past winters (graph courtesy of the Twin Cities NWS)  (photo from blogs.mprnews.org)

How this winter stacks up against past winters (graph courtesy of the Twin Cities NWS) (photo from blogs.mprnews.org)

 

What is driving the cold?

 

According to the Weather Underground website, a weather phenomenon known as the polar vortex may be driving this relentlessly cold weather in the Midwest.  The polar vortex is an area of very cold air that typically centers over Siberia and Canada’s Baffin Island.  A piece of the vortex broke off, and was forced south in part by the Jet Stream, into the Great Lakes Area of the US.

 

DTN Senior Meteorologist Mike Palmerino said “An unusual area of warm air over Alaska and northwest Canada pushed the cold air south.  They’ve had a lot of warm weather in Alaska this year.”  The polar air has pushed south in the past, so it’s not an unusual occurrence.

DTN meteorologist Mike Palmerino  (Photo from www.dtnprogressivefarmer.com)

DTN meteorologist Mike Palmerino (Photo from www.dtnprogressivefarmer.com)

 

Uneven snow cover

 

“I would say the eastern half of the state ended up with fairly decent snow cover that’s pretty consistent,” said Seely.  “However, the western half of the state, because of the high winds, ended up with variable snow cover.  In areas unprotected from the wind, our weather observers have reported seeing areas of bare soil in their farm fields.”

 

Seely said in unprotected areas, the lack of snow cover has allowed the permafrost has driven 4 to 6 feet deep, and that’s something, “We haven’t seen that in a long, long time.”  That means the ground is going to take time to thaw for spring planting in Minnesota.

One of the few areas where wild grass pokes through snow cover in SE Mn (photo by Chad Smith)

One of the few areas where wild grass pokes through snow cover in SE Mn (photo by Chad Smith)

 

What is ahead?

 

“The weather models are coming together and showing some moderation for the rest of the winter,” said Seely.  “That’s not to say we won’t have colder than normal days, but the sheer number of below zero days are going to go away.”

 

Palmerino said soils “east of the Mississippi River are in pretty good shape moisture-wise.  If anything, I think the main concern going into spring is that it’s too wet.”  He said “a stormy weather pattern and cooler than normal temperatures would definitely interrupt spring planting.”

 

Seely said the good news is the future models are showing moderating temperatures into March.  However, not all the predictions are positive:

 

Palmerino said it’s a fine line when farmers look to spring.  You want the weather to warm up and melt the snow, but not too fast either:

SE Mn has a lot of snow to get rid of before spring planting (photo by Chad Smith)

SE Mn has a lot of snow to get rid of before spring planting (photo by Chad Smith)

 

Here’s what it’s been like to drive in the Midwest this winter: