2024 Birkie will be … interesting.

The Birkie had a webinar tonight and the news is … not so good.

The lake had 9″ of ice a week ago. Now it has 4″. Snow is still missing from the Upper Midwest, aside from the piles made in Cable. The next two weeks look warm. Unless there’s a change in the weather that is known to be extreme, the Birkie is not going to look anywhere near normal.

My prognostication:

Most likely: they spread the snow out into a 10k loop and have a lap race. I’d guess that there might be enough snow for 12k and they’ll have people ski it three times. Maybe the times won’t mean anything for next year’s wave placement, given how conditions may vary over the course of the event. Maybe it will be open track for everyone. Maybe some sort of mass start for elites and then rolling starts for others, or maybe wave starts for everyone. Definitely people will be spread out over days like 2021.

Second most likely: there’s enough natural snow for either an out-to-OO-and-back race or a point-to-point race ending shy of Hayward (at either Fish Hatchery or Duffy’s Field).

Third most likely: there is a threaded needle with enough cold to freeze the lake and enough snow for a full race. This would have to occur over the course of two weeks, since the next 10 days won’t make any ice or snow. The Birkie only needs about 6″ of snow to hold a good race, but if there’s a little ice on the lake and it snows, it will insulate the lake from a cold snap. So we need either cold and then snow or, if the lake opens up, snow on open water and then cold weather to freeze it up. In either case, this would require a 2021-like polar vortex to freeze the lake. Not impossible, not that likely.

Fourth most likely: No race. Warm temperatures won’t really do a number on snow whales, but warmth and rain may. Luckily, the weather in the next few days looks relatively dry, so the whales will probably survive enough that they can get the ks they need. But if it’s 50 and raining the week before the race, well, let’s hope that it’s not the case.

One month to go

And … right now, there would be zero Birkies held.

The good news is that there is a month until the race, not a week. The 8 to 14 day outlook shows that the next week will not be conducive to making the Birkie trail go from green to white. Some model runs have been cutting off the huge ridge which will pump above-freezing temperatures to the Arctic Ocean in the Yukon and Nunavut (really) and tempering the meltdown. Some aren’t. The next two weeks are not going to be kind to the cause.

The longer forecast is … not as bad, but this could just be regression to the mean. Luckily for us, the Birkie keeps the trail in terrific shape, so we only need a few inches of snow to hold a perfectly good race (for instance, in 2012, the was bare ground in Spooner but the race itself was fine) and near-normal temperatures plus a bit of precipitation equals Birkie. Hayward this month has not only been warm (near normal for now, but the next few days look quite warm) but also dry. Right now the dry weather is almost as concerning as the warm weather. It’s hard to ski the Birkie on frozen grass.

Do you want to hear commiseration and potentially hope in more depth? If so, Ketzel Levens will be joining us soon on the podcast to discuss further!

Where is winter?

In early January last year, there was no shortage of snow in Birkieland. A thick blanket of snow covered the North Country, so much so that the concern was less about snowcover and more that the lake wouldn’t be frozen because of the insulation above it.

No such worry about the insulation on the lake this year. The real worry is whether it will freeze at all (and whether there will be snow to ski nearby).

We’ve had a good run of Birkie years: aside from 2017, it’s been 15/16 dating back to 2007 for perfect (or darned close) conditions. As global warming has warmed temperatures, colder areas have seen more moisture and temperatures are still cool enough for ample snow. There have always been dry, warm winters. Four of the warmest eight Januaries in Duluth history occurred in the 1800s, as did three of the warmest five Februaries. The trend lines may point up, but there’s a lot of noise.

There are two things to worry about right now. One is ice. Ice conditions right now will barely support anything more than a swimmer, and certainly not a Pisten Bully. Conditions should improve later this week, with cold weather forecast and the potential for some nights and even days well below 0 in the next two weeks. We still may have less-than-ideal ice thickness on the lake, but without much snow it should freeze down quickly and solidly. Cold weather without snow is best for ice, if not for skiing, because there’s no insulation to keep the ice from freezing down.

8 to 14 Day Outlook - Temperature Probability

Below normal temperatures should help with ice formation. The linked photo keeps updating so … it may no longer show those below normal temperatures.

Then there’s snow. Luckily for us, the Birkie isn’t for another 7 weeks or so, and we only need snow a few days before the race. We’d prefer a year like last year with a thaw-proof mat of feet of snow, but it would be nice to build some up in the next few weeks. There are low-snow years with perfectly fine Birkies.

2003 might be a good example. December 2002 was warm and nearly snow-free. Not as warm as this year (especially since it had a cold start) but there was only 1.9″ of snow during the month, and basically no skiing to speak of by the end of the month. December 2003 started out even warmer: January 8 had a high of 51˚ in Hayward! Temperatures did dip below 0˚ on the 11th and every night was below 0˚ for 19 days, freezing everything up but with minimal snowfall, just 5.3″ during the month. February started off with 6.5″ of snow but there was only 1.3″ the rest of the month. Despite a couple of days above freezing, there was enough snow for the Birkie by the end of the month (and a cold Birkie at that, with a low of -7˚ and a high of 15˚; two days later the low was -16˚ and high just 3˚).

The Birkie can manage with very minimal snow. As long as the ground is frozen and there’s no big thaw, lack of snow in January is not the final nail in the coffin for the race. It gives much less leeway for a thaw, however (see 2007 and 2017), so once the lake is frozen, it would be nice to pile a few feet of snow on top!