I’d been wondering about that

I don’t know about where you are, but this has been a strange winter here in Minnesota. We’ve had two snow “storms” so far, that did little more than dust the place with snow that melted away in these bizarrely odd warm days we’ve had. It’s cold, windy, and snowing lightly today, but otherwise, this was the first Christmas of Color I’ve experienced since moving to Minnesota.

There’s a meteorological explanation, though, and it’s not global warming. It’s a La Nina year, and the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation have been coincidentally conspiring to allow air to flow across the country from west to east with no snarls that might have led to interesting weather.

I’ve been grateful for the relatively boring and safe weather — apparently, it’s going to get worse this spring, which means more nights when my wife is stranded in her cold distant workplace and I have to keep warm by piling on the blankets.

(Also on Sb)


  1. catnip67 says

    And the counterpoint is that Eastern Australia is no longer experiencing drought conditions, and we have the coolest January in more than a decade. It is actually quite wintery today (that’s Melbourne winter, not Minnesota winter).

  2. Brownian says

    La niña! Of course! That’s why FtB is choking on server requests like a unionised McDonald’s!

  3. Holms says

    This is perhaps the coolest start to summer this Australian can recall. Even here at home, I am compelled to put a shirt on!


  4. cgilder says

    I live in Austin, and today, I sat on the patio of our neighborhood TexMex joint & drank a margarita with my veggie nachos. I got a little sunburned. We even had rain in December, although with anothe La Niña year coming up, we’ll most likely have another spring & summer of drought & wildfires. Gotta enjoy it while we can!

  5. craigore says

    In Washington in the bellevue/redmond/woodinville area, we haven’t gotten any snow this year. It’s been unusually pleasant weather for the most part.

  6. changeable moniker says

    I have to wonder, though. From a link in the article:

    Over time, the study found, weather has been growing increasingly extreme. In the last decade, there were 350 reported severe weather events each year, compared with just 2.5 per year in the 1920s and close to 46 per year in the 1960s.

    Apparently, either the 30s didn’t happen, or 1934-6 doesn’t count for more than perhaps one or two events.

  7. Active Margin says

    I’m in Phoenix and enjoying a lovely winter thus far, but it has been a bit bizarre.

    A few weeks back I was road-tripping all over California and was blown away at the lack of snow in the Lake Tahoe and Yosemite areas.

  8. robro says

    Talk about the weather. Here on the Golden Gate coast it’s unseasonably dry, whereas last winter…boy! did we get wet. Sadly the current conditions don’t bode well for ski-lift country. Anyway, when it’s like this in the Bay Area, it’s beautiful. However, it seems Alaska is getting the bad weather. They already had one very big storm this winter, and things are so frozen up there is concern about getting food and other supplies to some areas.

  9. says

    It was 51 degrees here in Wis-con-Sin today, and tomorrow we’ll have a high of 27 degrees with several inches of snow. It took me four pulls on the snow blower to make sure the fuel valve was really turned off.

  10. carlie says

    The northeast has been really warm, too. We had one snowfall with an inch or two in November sometime, and then three inches a week or so ago. And that’s it. We’re usually around two feet or more by now, with a layer of it being persistent since late November or so.

  11. kraut says

    I live in north eastern BC for over 30 years, and this is afair the first winter where at the beginning of January we had night time temperatures over 0C, wit +6C during daytime…..unheard of.

    Usually January starts with temperatures dipping to below -20C, right down to -40. We so far had since November one week of temperatures below -20. The snow that had accumulated is almost gone.
    Not getting enough water through snow melt is a problem – we have several dams that need to be filled, and so far it does look a bit scary.

  12. Trebuchet says

    craigore says:

    In Washington in the bellevue/redmond/woodinville area, we haven’t gotten any snow this year. It’s been unusually pleasant weather for the most part.

    Which is actually abnormal for a La Niña year in these parts. Typically that’s when we get the hard winters. El niño years tend to be mild. Oh well, possible snow predicted this weekend, as reported on Jen McCreight’s blog.

  13. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Even here at home, I am compelled to put a shirt on!

    I take it trousers are still optional.

  14. Lofty says

    There’s plenty of season left yet to have normal (read: crap) weather! In southern Australia we’ve just had a week of beautiful mild weather but that was after 41 degrees centigrade on new years day. Enjoy your weather whatever it is, and get outside while you can.

  15. ibyea says

    Thanks PZ. I have been wondering why the weather was so warm. So was my mom, so now I could tell her.

  16. lactosefermenter says

    I live in Vermont and the weather has been extremely mild here as well. It was 44 degrees today for chrissakes. 44 degrees in VT in January? There’s no snow on the ground and there hasn’t been for some time but we are expecting a wintery mix (snow/freezing rain) tonight which probably means the roads will treacherous for the morning commute. The winter industries (skiing, snowmobiling, etc) are hurting. Perhaps one positive aspect of the mild winter is fewer people getting the flu. I work as a microbiologist in the local hospital’s laboratory and the mild winter has seemed to curtailed the flu season somewhat. We seem to get many more influenza A and B cases during cold dry winters.

  17. Holms says

    I take it trousers are still optional.

    A compromise between comfort and chilly* weather: shorts in free-ball mode.

    *Note: anything under 25C is chilly.

  18. andyo says

    I’ve been wondering what these cold 60°F temps and early morning clouds are all about here in LA, it’s winter, we should be at 70, dammit! I should not be forced put on my sunglasses only after 8 AM!

  19. Eric O says

    I just got back from a quick visit to Winnipeg. Having lived in Winnipeg for two years, I was pleasantly surprised by the mild winter weather. I packed my parka for nothing!

  20. Azuma Hazuki says

    Here in NYC, the soil smells like March. I don’t think the trees are “confused” yet but I have that subtle, fullbody shivery feeling that usually signals an approaching onset of spring. The water vapor, the pressure, the soil pH, everything, it all feels like mid-March. It’s eerie…

  21. macallan says

    It’s jumping up and down around here ( eastern TN that is ) – one day it’s freezing, the next it’s high in the 50Fs again. Last year around this time we had snow storm after snow storm and highs in the 20s.

  22. stubby says

    I’ve lived in west central Minnesota for all of my forty years and this is the warmest, least snowy winter I can remember. I like snow but I do not miss the cold at all.

  23. mrcrowley says

    It’s supposed to be bloody summer here in NZ but it wont stop raining and I haven’t seen the sun since I got back from Australia last week! I feel bad for any amateur astronomers down here.

  24. says

    Here in Saint Petersburg, Russia we just got some snow, which is crazy. The last two years it started snowing in late October but nothing this year until just a few days ago. It’s still very little. Everyone’s talking about what a wacky winter this is.

    There were very high winds and slushy rain throughout December. That wind was obnoxious.

    The kids here are going nuts for the little bit of snow there is. They’ve obviously been jonesing. It’s pretty cute.

  25. anchor says

    “There’s a meteorological explanation, though, and it’s not global warming. It’s a La Nina year, and the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation have been coincidentally conspiring to allow air to flow across the country from west to east with no snarls that might have led to interesting weather.”

    Oh yeah? We’ve had La Nina in wintertime in the past, but never with these temperatures. Earlier this week it was in the mid-sixties in South Dakota and fifties in North Dakota. All across the upper-tier states records were shattered. Historically unheard of.

    It may be La Nina condition (not just “A La Nina Year”) but while that relatively smooth zonal west-east flow is nothing new, the RECORD temps certainly are. There wasn’t any lack of zonal mixing last Winter, that’s for sure, but strangely the extra snowfall last year was blamed on LA NINA TOO!!!

    If it bleats and smells like a goat, go ahead and call it a goat. The weather has in fact gotten weirder and warmer and this IS a reflection of global warming. I know its politically expedient, but folks have got to quit the silly equivocating and quit repeating the mantra that there’s a difference between the weather and the climate (or between short-term variation and long-term trends). All please nod knowingly. Dammit. How many record-setting short-term variations have to occur before we admit there’s something odd about THE FRIGGIN’ WEATHER?

  26. jentokulano says

    “It La Nina”

    And when it’s a cold year: It’s La Nina!
    And when it’s a snowy year: It’s La Nina!
    And last October “It’s a La Nina year so expect average snowfall and temps”.

    La Nina/El Nino are less understood than climate change (the latter of which is as likely to explain this bizarre winter – the driest in most of the Rockies since ’77 and/or ’81). The jet stream position explains the storm tracks better than any “baby jesus” water mass; but the warm temps are unprecedented and unforeseen.

  27. crowepps says

    Aside from the huge storm in the Bering Sea at the beginning of November, Alaska has had a series of a minimum of four smaller storms with high winds and lots of moisture that have played havoc with our electric infrastructure, and we are expecting another one in the morning. A few hours ago it was *raining* here, but as much as a foot of snow is in the forecast for tomorrow.

    Anybody want snow? We have some we’d gladly send you!


    They have a series of photographs that people have sent in up at the paper as well. The one with the whole garage door full of snow has to be seen to be believed —

  28. davem says

    Here in the southern UK, 2011 was the second warmest year on record. Winter hasn’t really started yet – I’ve only had one frost overnight so far. I picked my last outside tomatoes in December. This isn’t just La Nina…

  29. Thomathy, now angrier and feminister says

    It has been a singularly odd winter here in Toronto. There has been not a bit of snow, unless flurries that melt above the ground count. It’s also been ridiculously warm! It was nearly short weather the other day and it’s already mid-January. It was 10 degrees centigrade!

    Still, with all this warm weather (it’s barely been below zero at all this winter), I’d still prefer snow, any amount of the damned stuff, over the occasional and unseasonal rain we’ve had. Especially today. It’s 3 degrees and pouring rain.

    I can’t believe that I’d actually rather it be -20 with a metre or two of snow on the ground. Well, I’d much rather prefer 30 degree weather and cloying humidity, but I think I can wait till the summer for that.

    La Niña, however, probably precludes there being a hot summer at all. It’ll be another year without a summer, I guess. Like 2008, where it must have been rainy and 15 degrees when it wasn’t snowy and -10 degrees.

    La Niña; annoying.

  30. Holms says

    @34 anchor:

    I disagree. Pick any year at all, and you will find meteorological records equalled or broken in several places in the world. Broken records, seemingly counterintuitively, happen all the time; we simply do not experience the majority of them, so when we finally do, it seems amazing. This is simply the mathematics of statistical outliers in action; pointing at the current outlier simply because it happens to be nearby is not indicative of an overall trend.

    When we see an unusual weather event, we can pose the following hypothesis: “this is a consequence of a larger pattern” or “AGW dunnit”. The null hypothesis to this is of course “this is not the consequence of a larger pattern” or just “AGW is innocent”. The two hypotheses, the null and the alternate, are essentially in a competition with one another, and the alternate hypothesis must distinguish itself with an accumulation of supporting data if it is to win. Failing this, the null wins by default.

    The meteorological people quoted in the linked article have appaarently investigated and found in favour of the null.

  31. says

    When I read this thread last night, I was going to comment on how weird the weather has been in our little corner of New Jersey, but during the night it started to rain, and it’s still raining, and our basement is starting to get damp again, so at the moment we’re having completely typical January weather.

  32. stonyground says

    You get a white Christmas almost every year? In the UK a white Christmas happens only occasionally so when there is one it is a special occasion. I think that this is mainly because we get the more wintery of our weather in February rather than December. Last Christmas it didn’t snow but there was so much snow during December that it was still white over at Christmas. We have had three colder than average winters in a row, this winter has so far been very mild.

  33. anchor says

    @40 Holms: “I disagree.”

    Suit yourself.

    How nice of you to explain how to properly digest meteorological statistical data. You sound very much like your fictional near-name-sake.

    Holms: “The meteorological people quoted in the linked article have appaarently investigated and found in favour of the null.”

    Yeah yeah yeah. They always do. (This one guy, Paul Douglas, who is quoted in the pop-science Discovery article, is a ‘meteorologist’ out of the Twin Cities in Minnesota – not a climate scientist). Their refrain is getting mighty monotonous and tiresome.

    OF COURSE any particular weather event cannot be attributed to any long-term trend. Everyone knows that’s silly, right?

    But that’s not the same as looking at a COLLECTION – a SERIES of many (short-term) weather excursions or events – in order to see if there is any (long-term) climate change or trend away from the usuals, norms or averages from historical records.

    Do you understand this?

    Look. How long are (largely American) meteorologists going to keep reassuring everyone that the increase in the number of unusual short-term weather events is not attributable to any long-term climate change or trend?

    Do you have any idea how idiotic it is becoming to keep throwing up that disclaimer?

    The climate scientists mentioned in the following newsrelease describing presentations of The Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis last October seem to:


    “”That’s been the mantra of the community and I think it’s wrong,” said climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. Trenberth and other climate scientists will be giving presentations that connect extreme weather over the past decade to climate change…”

    That’s why I find what Paul Douglas is quoted as quipping in the Discovery article to be so annoying:

    “It really is on the verge of being unprecedented meteorologically to be this warm for this long, this deep into winter.”

    “The last 18 months have been utterly amazing from the standpoint of meteorology,” Douglas said. “It’s going to be a wild ride.”

    “Unprecedented”. “Utterly amazing”. “Wild ride”.

    Oh the heaping hype. But, no, there isn’t anything unusual. Just statistical flukes. Happens every day, right?

    What’s ‘utterly amazing’ is the urgency with which learned weather-folk seem to attach to the tedious disclaimer in an effort to keep people educated on the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’. (The message certainly fits comfortably into the AGW denialist boudwoir). Oh, but definitely, above all, lets not have anybody ever think that long-term climatic trends can actually have any physical influence on the severity or frequency of unusual or severe short-term weather events. That might be unjustifiably disturbing or even scare people into thinking that they might have to deal with the climate (which they can’t see) through their weather (which they can).

    You can always disagree and repeat that fine explanation of how to properly digest statistical data in future. I’ll try not to laugh.

  34. tariqata says

    Thomathy@39: Indeed!

    I don’t quite understand how a week ago I was shivering at the bus stop in -16 degree weather, yesterday was warm enough for Matt Galloway to eat an empanada outside, today I’m lamenting the fact that my ‘waterproof’ winter coat is not ‘rainproof’, and apparently tomorrow I’ll be trying to keep the snow and slush off my interview clothes.

    I’m not particularly eager for -20 temps – and at least if this weather keeps up I probably won’t face a $500 hydro bill in March! – but some consistency would be nice.

  35. bcwebb says

    The “and it’s not global warming” sub head is unfounded. La Nina/El Nino are statements about current ocean conditions which are known to have predicable affects on weather. It’s barely more sophisticated than saying that when you have clouds overhead it’s more likely to rain. Absent a real analysis of the shifts in prevalence of ocean patterns due to global warming you and the writer cannot either blame nor exclude global warming. There is some serious science being done on the subject but I’m not knowledgeable to comment. This pattern of dismissing global warming effects because “it’s just El Nino” is the kind of tripe that BS/BA meteorologists resort to when resentful of the PhD atmospheric guys.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be Linnaean taxonomy which describes patterns without fundamental understanding of causes. There’s nothing worse than asking a meterologist to explain a persistent wet period – you’ll get “well, there’s a blocking pattern over Greenland.” So what is a the blocking pattern? “Well a blocking pattern is when the winds tend to circulate North/South rather than East/West.” Why? “Well, there’s a strong stationary high..” Every layer has another onion inside it.

    Sheesh, and you’re so careful when talking about your own field.

  36. eclectabotanics says

    How about climate change is causing the unusual La Nina? Think of the La Nina as the manifestation of Global Warming right now, and the strange weather fits within a global warming scenario.

  37. milobear says

    We got some of your snow here in Australia yesterday. There was a small fall in the mountains in Victoria and southern NSW. Here in Canberra we had record low temperatures for January, and hail as I rode my bike from work.

    Ok our record low 1.6C is not that cold by the standards of mid-west USA, but when we would expect lows in the high teens or low twenties, it’s quite a shock!

  38. David Marjanović says

    Here in lowland Austria, there hasn’t been any winter so far. I mean, there were 2 or 3 freezing nights in early December or so, but that’s it. It’s warm. It hasn’t snowed once yet, only rained, and any snow that would fall would melt. This is fucking crazy. It rains pretty often, which is… simply not winter. November weather is transitioning smoothly into March weather; there isn’t just a Christmas Thaw this year (as there usually is), it never froze in the first place!

    The latest first snow I’ve ever seen was on December 21st, and that was in one of the unusually warm winters of the 1990s. Now the first possibly frozen day of this “winter” (forecast of 0 °C) is predicted to be Sunday.

    Meanwhile, some places in the western tip of Austria (in the Alps) are lying under five meters of snow.

    Does anyone know how to blame this on La Niña?

  39. craigore says

    Trebuchet @ 19
    Other people have been talking about it too, although it has only so far been below freezing when it has been clear this season. It’s painfully ironic that it makes us welcome the cloud cover for the insulative benefit.

  40. Thomathy, now angrier and feminister says

    Tariqata, here, here! Also, it may be noted that I spoke too soon. It’s snowing now. Yes, consistency would be damned nice, even if I’m not eager for -20 degree temperatures. It is extremely disconcerting to find comfort in walking over an exhaust vent in the street. Ugh!