It’s official: Winter second worst in 114 years

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

It’s official. The winter of 2013-14 was the second worst since the winter of 1900-01, 114 years ago. You can tell your grandkids about this one.

This is not just subjective complaining. This is based on the tabulations of West’s Winter Misery Index (WWMI), which, using historical data from the National Weather Service, combines the daily highs and lows in Central Minnesota from November through March for each winter, divides by two, and then subtracts the inches of snow. The rationale is the colder the weather, the lower the number, and with excessive snow being a negative, that’s why the amount of snow is subtracted to produce an index number. The lower the WWMI, the more the winter misery.

Some readers will remember the worst winter during that 114 year span — the winter of 1978-79. That winter began slightly warmer than the most recent one, with average highs in November 1978 of 39.1 compared to 37.5 in November 2013. In December 2013, it was colder and snowier than in 1978, with average highs in 1978 of 21.6, average lows of -0,2 and 19 inches of snow. In December 2013 the average highs were only 14.7, the lows -3.7 and 23.2 inches of snow fell.

But complain though we did this last January, we had nothing on those living through January 1979, when the average highs were 10.4 above, the average lows minus 12.7 and 17.5 inches of snow fell. By comparison, this January the highs averaged 13.5, the lows minus 9.9 and “only” 15.8 inches of snow fell.

February 1979 was warmer than 2014 with highs of 17.3 vs. highs of 15 this year, and lows of 5.0 below compared to 11.3 below this year, but the severity of February 1979 was caused by the snowfall. That month 33.5 inches of snow fell compared to 13.4 inches this year.

February 1979, by the way, was the fourth snowiest month in Central Minnesota history, surpassed only by January 1975, February 1922, and the all time leader, March 1965’s 41.5 inches.

In March 1979, the temperatures were slightly warmer than in 2014, but again, there was more snow, 14.0 inches in 1979 to 9.8 this year.

The key for either winter to be in the discussion for all-time worst is sustained misery over five months. The coldest January ever, for example, was in 1912, with average highs of 3.9 and average lows at a chilly 26.8 below zero. But other months that winter were nicer than either 1978-79 or 2013-14.

For each single month, the worst WWMI by year was as follows: November 1991, December 2008, January 1975, February 1922 and March 1965.

As it was, the winter just past had the 31st worst November, the fourth worst December, the 11th worst January, the fourth worst February and the 14th worst March. For sheer sustained misery, that ranks right up there.

The worst part of winter remains the cold. Snow is inconvenient, disrupting plans, school days and work attendance, but cold can kill or maim if you stay outside for too long, and it can also kill your pocketbook, as propane users learned this year. This year, many of us suffered with frozen water and sewer pipes.

There was good reason for that. The daily highs were the second lowest on record, and the daily lows were the all-time coldest, driving the frost line deeper than normal. In some ways, it was good that this winter was the 15th snowiest because the snow cover prevented even more pipes from blocking up.

Some will question why the WWMI runs only from November through March. After all, they say, just a few days ago, during the first week in April, parts of Minnesota received up to 12 inches of snow.

In the same way, some question whether November should be included in a winter index.

The answer is that more often that not, the snow is long gone by the middle of April, whereas permanent snow cover often comes around the middle of November. When the snow cover is permanent (meaning set to last a few months), that’s the WWMI’s informal definition of winter’s start.

Besides, isn’t a five-month winter enough?

Here are the 10 “nicest” and the 10 “worst” winters since 1900-01 on the WWMI:


  1. 2011-12
  2. 1986-87
  3. 1941-42
  4. 1980-81
  5. 2009-10
  6.  1999-2000
  7. 1960-61
  8. 1923-24
  9. 2002-03
  10. 2005-06


  1. 1978-79
  2. 2013-14
  3. 1951-52
  4. 1964-65
  5. 1996-97
  6. 1935-36
  7. 1950-51
  8. 1936-37
  9. 1911-12
  10. 1968-69

It’s hard to believe that just two years ago we were winding up our nicest winter in more than a century. However, that just proves the WWMI’s main contention: That most everybody complains about the weather, but promptly forgets about it unless it is so severe that it destroys one’s house or postpones one’s wedding.

Regardless, having five of the 10 nicest winters come in the past 15 years, spoiled us all. Having the worst winter in 35 years should leave us all chastened.

Tom West is the general manager of the Morrison County Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or email [email protected]