Skiing the Birkie in the second-warmest winter on record

It’s been warm in Birkieland. In Duluth, which has the longest nearby record, December averaged 30.1˚, nearly 15˚ above normal, barely cooler than November which, itself, was a bit above normal. January had a cold snap and only came in 8˚ above normal. February has been hot, and projects to around 27˚, or 14˚ above normal based on the current forecast. And these aren’t the 30-year averages NOAA uses but the record going all the way back to 1874. (This is “meteorological winter” of December, January and February for those of you keeping score at home.

But this isn’t the warmest winter on record. There was no Birkie that winter. Because the warmest winter on record, with an average temperature more than 3˚ warmer than this year, was the winter of 1877 to 1878, also known as “the year without a winter.”

Here’s a chart of temperatures in Duluth for this winter so far. There was that one cold snap in January, several record warm temperatures, and periods where the low temperature was higher than the average high for weeks on end. It’s ugly, but the Birkie has managed to make enough snow to put on some semblance of a race.chart(1)



Now, here’s 1878:

chart(2)Even this may be deceiving: the DNR notes that the observation site was down by the harbor in 1878, so if it had been up the hill, it would have been colder. (It’s at the airport now, which wasn’t a thing in 1878 since the Wright Brothers were 7 and 11.) The Twin Cities is running at or above 1878 this year! 1878 would have been tough to ski the Birkie, especially since at that time the only way to create ice was to saw it out of ponds in winter.

1878 was likely a strong El Niño, too. Not that they knew about the ENSO, or the MJO, or what the weather was going to be tomorrow. 1879 was a more normal year, and there were some cold years a few years after (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter” chronicled 1880-1881), so it was an outlier, much as we hope this year will be.

The coldest winter in Duluth? Well, it’s a tie, between 1875 and 2014, although the station location change means that 1875 was probably colder.

Leave a Reply