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.
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!