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Winter’s grip

How cold has it been this winter? Thanks to something called the Polar Vortex, this year’s January thaw actually came in February, and single-digit highs have been more the norm than the exception.

February 22, 2014
By Deb Gau , Marshall Independent

Minnesota used to have a reputation as the American Siberia, Mark Seeley said. In a winter like this one, with subzero temperatures lasting for days at a time, it's easy to believe why.

"For much of the state, this has been one of the coldest winters based on mean temperature," said Seeley, a climatologist with the University of Minnesota Extension.

For Marshall in particular, the winter of 2013-14 has been the coldest in about 30 years. And while Seeley and other weather experts say local temperatures aren't breaking any records, they're definitely harsher than many people have come to expect.

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Just this past Monday, the temperature in Marshall hit 40 degrees — a much-needed break from the arctic temps that have prevailed so often this winter. The highs and lows of this season have included a number of white-outs in the area and numerous lengthy stretches of bone-chilling temps.

"There's a whole generation of Minnesota citizens who have not experienced a winter like this," Seeley said.

"It's kind of a return to a good old-fashioned winter," said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Boulay said Marshall has reported 48 days with temperatures at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit so far this winter, compared to 26 days last winter.

The coldest Marshall winter on record is the winter of 1935-36, when there were 54 days of temperatures at or below zero.

This winter's prolonged cold can be traced back to a weather system affecting much of the continental United States, Boulay said.

"What's really been the culprit is a big ridge of high pressure in the West," he said. While the high-pressure area has led to drought on the West Coast and an unusually warm winter in Alaska, it has also forced cold arctic air down into the Midwest.

"Since December 1, Minnesota has been really at the heart of the cold," Seeley said. "That's the pattern we've been locked into." He said it's a similar pattern to ones that produced Marshall's record cold winter in 1935-36, as well as unusually frigid winters in 1978-79 and 1981-82.

While cold temperatures have stuck around since December, there hasn't been a lot of snow accompanying them. Boulay said the Marshall area has received about 21 inches of snow from December through February, but that wasn't above normal levels. Seeley said the heavier snowfalls this winter seem to have hit mostly the eastern side of the state.

While there have been blizzards reported in the Marshall area this winter, they were mostly linked to poor visibility and drifting instead of deep snowfall, he said.

It's not certain how long this winter will linger, although Seeley said he thinks a late spring is possible. The other question that will be hanging over farmers is whether the snowfall the Marshall area has received will be much help for soil moisture.

U.S. Drought Monitor reports from earlier this month show southwest Minnesota in moderate drought conditions, after a dry summer and autumn in 2013.

"If we don't get any decent snow in March, we will probably go into spring with a deficit of moisture," said Tim Masters, a technician with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"We may see more snow" this winter, Seeley said, but the region also has deep frost in the ground. Spring snowmelt won't be absorbed unless the ground has thawed.

At this point, Seeley said, many farmers would be happy with just a normal spring.



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