The Winter that Never Was…

28 Feb

This is what we expect of winter in Wisconsin…

The WI State Capitol and Monona Terrace viewed across the frozen lake.

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…picturesque views across fresh snow on the frozen lake…

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One good 2011 snow storm buries us!

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…mounds of snow blanketing the house, barricading the driveway, blocking every daily task.

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Well, almost every task, one of the most fun days of last winter was skiing with my neighbor down our street.  We skied right through major intersections heaped the snow falling down faster than the trucks could hope to plow it up!  It was Martin Luther King Day (I recall lamenting that we weren’t even really playing hooky since it was already a holiday!), so just a few days earlier in the year than I’m writing now.

We were practically the only traffic on the roads!

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But the winter of 2012 is not meeting expectations!  The lakes are barely frozen, a mere dusting of snow has fallen all winter, and the skis have scarcely made it out of the shed!

The sun sinks over melting water.

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Just to prove I’m not imagining things, I thought I’d post some comparison pictures – February 2011 versus February 2012.  First, the ice skating lagoon at Tenney Park.  This year the lagoon was seldom open to skaters – warm weather and frequent thawing events have left the ice thin and porous.

The Tenney Park lagoon in the winter of 2011 and 2012.

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My own front walkway – don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the lack of shoveling!  But, wow, it seems weird to stroll out the front door and bike down a clear street in the middle of a Midwestern winter!

Much less shoveling in 2012!

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So this must be evidence of global warming!  Right?  Well…

First let’s start by referring more appropriately to global climate change, acknowledging the full gamut of extreme weather changes that accompany the gradual increase in average global temperatures.

But, foremost, let’s not jump to conclusions after just one extreme event.  It could just be one anomalous season.  I’d hate to be the counter-equivalent to Fox News decrying global warming when one springtime snow storm hits the east coast!

So, let’s put the snowless winter of 2012 in some perspective.  We can look at weather data over time and see whether this year is a bizarre stand out or part of a warming trend in Wisconsin’s winter weather.  It’s actually pretty easy to track down summaries of such data, thanks to the State Climatology Office.  Take a look – sure, the graphs are bumpy, there’s a lot of natural variation!  But there’s also a very clear overall story…

This first graph shows how the average winter temperature each year varies from the long-term average (that’s the average of all years since 1895).  You can see that, over time, warm years are getting warmer and cold years are getting less chilly.

The graph shows extreme winter temperatures in south-central Wisconsin, both above (red) and below (blue) the average winter temperature of 20.7 degrees. Data from the WI State Climatology Office. I added the trendline.

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Even more striking is this graph showing the 20 warmest winters ever in Wisconsin (since 1895).  The bars show the number of those record-setting years within each decade.  There’s a strong trend toward increasing warm years in more recent decades.

The graph shows the number of record-setting warm winters in each decade.

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As the winter temperature increases, the characteristic ice covering Wisconsin’s lakes decreases.  This graph shows the number of days that Madison’s Lake Monona was frozen during each winter since the mid 1800’s.  There may be variation, but the strong downward trend says that the frozen season is getting shorter and shorter.

The graph shows the number of days in each winter that Lake Monona (pictured above) was frozen. Data from the WI State Climatology Office. I added the trendline.

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Look out ice fishermen!

An ATW drives out to an ice fishing shanty on Lake Monona. Warming winters don't bode well for the lake ice or the fishing season!

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