Betting on a white Christmas may have seemed like a sure bet.
After all, last year’s winter came early and stayed late.
Numerous meteorologists and the Farmer’s Almanac predicted very cold temperatures and a traditional Minnesota snowfall. In August, the Farmer’s Almanac’s winter outlook described a “wet, wild winter in 2012.” And that may still come to pass. But chances are between slim and none by Christmas Day.
Typically, the odds are heavily in favor of Christmas snow.
The Minnesota Climatology Working Group at the University of Minnesota reported Brainerd’s probability of a white Christmas — with at least an inch of snow on the ground — historically is 97 percent.
The state climatology office says “northern Minnesota is one of the few non-alpine climates in the U.S. where a white Christmas is almost a sure bet,” especially in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Arrowhead.
In Brainerd, the probability of having 5 inches on the ground is 59 percent and chances of having 10 inches on the ground is 29 percent.
Wasn’t this supposed to be the winter that would make the hardiest Minnesotan want to be a snowbird? The forecast was for a double blast of cold and snow. Last Sunday, Brainerd had a high of 50 degrees. While it wasn’t a record for December, to find warmer days means going back to the late 1990s.
The warmest day in December on record in the last 112 years was Dec. 6, 1939, when the mercury rose to 61 degrees, the National Weather Service reported. The temperature rose to the mid and upper 50s in December in 1998, 1962, 1941 and then to 60 on Dec. 2, 1962.
It won’t be that warm through the end of the year, the weather service reported, but it should be mild with highs in the mid-30s. The best chance of snow likely came and went Wednesday, although at 20 percent it was questionable to start. There is at least a possibility for a trace of snow as Christmas comes to a close and into Monday.
But for those traveling to grandma’s house, Christmas Day promises to be mostly sunny and warm in central Minnesota with a high of 35 degrees. That weather pattern is expected to continue into the last week of the year.
“I think what you see is what you get,” said Steve Gohde, observing program leader at the National Weather Service in Duluth. “This is fairly uncommon. It doesn’t seem like in the next 10 days that our pattern is going to be changing much.”
In Duluth, while there is no snow down the hill, at least people can drive up the hill and into the wooded areas to see snow, Gohde said.
So why were the models calling for a cold and snowy winter? Gohde said much of that information was based on the signal of a La Nina from the southern Pacific, which typically means more snow here. But other factors are also at play such as the jet stream which in its southerly branch has brought in milder air with the northern branch has been drier.
“So we just haven’t had the precipitation coming in our direction,” Gohde said.
Gohde said the long-range predictions are still calling for a January, February and March with below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation, but the current reality and shorter-term models for the lakes area show continued mild temperatures through the end of the year.
“For this month, we are really ranking high on the average temperature extreme looking at historical statistics,” Gohde said. For the next two days temperatures may drop a little cooler before rising again the mid-30s. And projecting into the future, Gohde said the outlook has the coldest air with below normal temperatures over central North Dakota, Montana and points west with the potential for above normal precipitation north of Minnesota’s Arrowhead. In the lakes area the forecast into the rest of the winter is now an equal chance for above or below normal.
“It’s an educated ‘I don’t know,’” Gohde said of the description of the equal chance.
January is predicted to have above normal temperatures with an equal chance for either above or below average snowfall or precipitation. The weather service will take a new look at longer term models at year’s end.
Another spectre in the mild, dry weather is the drought condition. Gohde noted the dry conditions have persisted since September.
“We’re way up there, too, for extremes,” Gohde said.
In the lakes area, precipitation was measured at 2.62 inches since September making this season the third driest on record behind 1952 and 1976. In fourth place, 1967.
With an average temperature of 41.7 degrees, this year could be the fifth warmest since 1948, behind 1998, 2001, 2004 and 1962.
What could the future hold? January and February typically provide lower yield months in terms of winter snowfall. Precipitation values go up in later February and into March.
Looking at data going back to 1948 collected in the Brainerd lakes area, snowfall has averaged 5.5 inches in November, 8.8 inches in December, 11.2 inches in January, 7 inches in February and 10 inches in March.
So this snowless Christmas, as it appears now, is out of the ordinary.
Probabilities of a white Christmas in the region are:
• Aitkin — 85 percent.
• Fort Ripley — 95 percent.
• Little Falls — 82 percent.
• Long Prairie — 90 percent.
• Milaca — 90 percent.
• Pine River Dam — 100 percent.
• Riverton — 95 percent.
• Wadena — 92 percent.
• Walker — 100 percent.
In the Twin Cities, with 110 years of snow depth measurements, Christmas is white about 72 percent of the time. Between 1899 and 2009, the climatology office reported there were 31 years during that stretch were there was just a trace or no snow at all, including 2006.
This is the first full day of the winter of 2011. But no matter how it’s sliced now, winter will seem considerably shorter than normal. Unless, that is, snow is on the ground late well into spring and the weather story is headlined with “Where is the grass?”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.