Weather is everybody’s favorite icebreaker, but it always amazes me how little we remember of the day-to-day ups and downs. A tornado stays in hearts and minds for a lifetime, but only the worst blizzards are recalled for more than a few years.
So it was that I could not recall when we had a milder winter than the one just ended. (I have always decreed that in Minnesota winter begins on Nov. 1 and ends on March 31, regardless of what Mother Nature or the calendar say.)
I have been looking forward with anticipation to updating West’s Winter Misery Index this spring, expecting that a new record for Least Misery must have been set.
I recall a friend by Glenwood telling me he played golf there five times in January. Then came March, and the daily highs topped 60 12 times, including five days in the 70s. When people were supposed to be worrying about frost bite and chapped lips, they were running around wearing shorts and tank tops.
I have calculated West’s Winter Misery Index back to the winter of 1951-52, figuring that covers the memory spans of most of our readers. You would have to be in your 80s today to have any memory of 1936, which contained both a record cold snap and a record heat wave.
To calculate West’s Winter Misery Index, one takes the daily highs in central Minnesota and adds them to the daily lows, then divides by two. The lower the number the more the misery.
But winter is more than cold. It also involves snow. So then, one subtracts the depth of the snow cover to make the number even lower. Ever is our misery quantified.
So where does the winter of 2011-12 fit on the nicest winter rankings?
From November to March it came in second nicest, with a score of 22.25, trailing only the winter of 1986-87, with an index of 23.29.
In the 61 years in the index’s records, the index has topped 20 only five times, with the other years being 1980-81 (index reading 21.29), 2009-10 (21.02) and 1999-2000 (20.53)
By contrast, the worst winter ever, the only time the overall index from November through March was below zero was the winter of 1978-79, when the area had the all-time worst February, as well as a nasty January.
I find it hard to believe that this wasn’t the nicest winter ever, but then, as I said, our weather memories are highly selective.
As a test, here are the highlights of the winter just past. I’m betting unless you keep detailed records, you won’t remember half of these days.
In November, the high for the month was 63 on Nov. 13. The low was 2-below a week later on Nov. 20, the day after 6.1 inches of snow fell.
In December, the high was 49 on Dec. 27. However, the low was 5-below on two consecutive days, Dec. 6-7.
In January, when my friend was golfing, the high was 52 above on Jan. 11. The low was minus-22 on Jan. 20.
In February, the highest high was “only” 43 on Feb. 20. Again, the low of -3 was met on two consecutive days, Feb. 11-12.
And in March, the high for the month was 75, reached on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. However, the low was 8-below, again met on two consecutive days, March 4-5.
Surely, with 12 days above 60, last month had to be the best March ever — the first ever to both come in and go out like a lamb.
Alas, the Winter Misery Index shows that it was only the fifth nicest. The all-time nicest? How’s your memory? It was just two years ago, the winter of 2009-10.
This March, the average high was 50.3. Just two years before, the average high was 53.2. This year, the average March low was 28.2; two years before, it was 32.0.
True, we had 12 days above 60 this year. However, those two days waking up to 8-below lowered the index and increased our misery.
The facts are that two years ago, the temperature dropped below freezing on only 14 days, and the lowest temperature of the month was 11 above.
The lowest high in March 2010 was a balmy 40 degrees.
In 2010, the temperature was over 60 on 8 days, and over 70 on just two days, those being March 30-31. That’s less than this year.
This year, 4.9 inches of snow fell on Feb. 29, but only an additional 1.8 inches on March 1 and then only another 1.5 inches the remainder of the month for a total of 3.3 inches. The average snow depth for the month was 1.7 inches, while it was 3.3 inches two years ago, but the snow was all gone a day earlier two years ago, March 14 vs. March 15.
Put it all together, and 2010 was the best March ever, followed by 2000, 1973, 1968 and then 2012.
I don’t use West’s Winter Misery Index to determine whether global warming is fact or fiction. The point is simply to give us a fun way to determine objectively if a winter was relatively nice or one that would make any sane person wonder why we live here.
For the curious, I sliced the first 60 years of the Index into 10-year groups, beginning with 1951-52 to 1960-61. In order from worst to nicest, the worst decade winter weatherwise was mostly the 1960s, followed by the ‘70s, ‘90s, ‘80s, ‘50s and the 2000s.
But then, you probably forgot about how nice it was in the ‘50s, didn’t you?
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at email@example.com.