Does a late first freeze mean a mild winter?

- Now that the peak fall colors have come and gone, many trees are bare, and daylight saving time is ending, we should be headed for the freezer with cold and snow arriving any day now.  Well, not this year.  In fact, this year we will see the latest first fall freeze on record, dating back to 1872.  Only 7 other times has the metro made it to November before recording the first 32° temperature with the last time coming more than 50 years ago. 

RECORD BOOK - Twin Cities will set latest first freeze on record

So does this late arrival for winter mean we aren’t going to see any cold?  Well, we both know that isn’t realistic.  So how bad is the winter going to be?

Well, that is of course, a complicated question.  I’m sure by now you have seen everyone and their mother sharing their winter outlook.  The Farmer’s Almanac, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Weather Channel, Accuweather, The Climate Prediction Center, the crazy guy down the street, etc… all have released these images trying to describe our winter in as few words as possible.  All are vague and tell you very little about what’s going to happen.  That’s because long range forecasting (anything over 10 days) is truly a crap shoot, BUT there are ways you can use past events to try to help you figure out future ones.

Take our situation for example; we will have the latest first freeze ever.  SO, you can use that information to try to give you some idea of what MIGHT happen over the winter.  So, I did some number crunching.  Before 2016, there have been 7 other times that we have had our first freeze in November.  But considering records date back to 1872, I thought just using 7 years was a poor sample size.  So I decided to double it and use the last 7 years that we ended up with a first freeze in late October as well.  14 is a much better sample size, although admittedly, still not very large.  So I recorded the overall average temperature of each one of those winters, and then found out the overall snowfall for those particular seasons… which does extend longer than the traditional months of December, January, & February, but it’s the best I could do.

So clearly the correlation isn’t perfect, but after jotting these stats down in the images above, you can see a pattern.  Of the 14 years where our first fall freeze was on the 28th of October or later, 12 of those years we saw sub average temperatures when comparing them to the 1981-2010 averages.  Which means 2 years we saw above average temperatures.  12 to 2… climatologically speaking, that’s pretty much a smoking gun, BUT it’s rarely that simple and Mother Nature LOVES to throw some curve balls now and again.  To give you a little perspective on just how warm these average temps are as compared to recent years, last winter, we had an average temperature of 24.2°… which is above EVERY other number on this list… a significant amount in most cases.  So you can reasonably conclude that there is a pretty good shot that this winter will be colder than last year.  But on the other side of the coin, the never ending winter of 2013-2014, when February was one of the coldest ever, the average temperature was 9.7°.  Once again, not a single number in these 14 years is anywhere close to being that cold.  I think most of us like the thought of that.

Now, I know you want to know how much snow we could get this winter.  Well, using this same philosophy, the average snowfall for these 14 winters is just a little over 40”… that would be over a foot below average for snow.  So this may indicate that we will see below average snowfall.  But, I have to warn you… long term snowfall prediction is next to impossible for several reasons.  First, one big storm can tilt the scales one way or another and are impossible to predict more than a few days away.  For example, you could record 54” of snow in a season, and that would be considered normal.  But maybe 20” came from one “megastorm”.  Well, if it weren’t for that single storm, the season would have been considered significantly below average. 

Snowfall also depends on the overall winter pattern.  These patterns can get stuck in place for several weeks.  That can leave the storm track over the same area for long periods of time giving one area a lot of snow, but other areas nearby next to nothing. 

Snow also depends on temperatures.  If it’s snowing and it’s 32°, it will likely be a heavy wet snow that is easily compactable and therefore doesn’t grow in height nearly as well as snow that is falling at 15°.  So, you may end up with below average snow not because you had less of it, but because of its composition…. Leaving you with snow that didn’t pile up nearly as high.  So when you see long range snowfall predictions, use extreme skepticism. 

Basically for all winter forecasts, use some skepticism as it is clearly not an exact science.  BUT, using correlating data from past years, you may conclude that a cooler and dryer than average winter season may be in our future.  If you aren’t jaded already, the Fox 9 winter forecast will come out around the first of December.  We wait so long so we can get a better idea of the overall winter pattern that will set up… which it starts to show signs of at the end of November… giving us a better shot at coming up more accurate.

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