“Snowsquatch!” Tracking mysterious July snowfall reports from BWCA

In search of Minnesota’s “Weather Sasquatch”

“It has never snowed in Minnesota in July.”

That’s the narrative and official mantra from the record keepers at the Minnesota Climate Working Group.

But almost every year sporadic and mysterious reports of “elusive snowflakes” filter in from northern Minnesota. This year’s report came in via our 21st Century virtual coffee shop, aka twitter.

Image: @bryanhansel via twitter

Just who is this “Bryan Hansel” anyway? And why is he hiding in that yellow rain hoodie? And why does this ominous, potentially record setting tweet come without photographic evidence or proof?

Is this just the latest “July snow hoax” from northern Minnesota? Or was there something more mysterious…even sinister in the “Jul-tober” air mass that brought well documented record cold to Minnesota last weekend?

The Huttner Weather Lab investigates in this episode of…

“In Search of  Snowsquatch.”

Grand Marais Harbor. Image: Paul Huttner MPR News

 Dateline: Grand Marais July 26, 2013

It started as a normal day in the tiny picturesque hamlet of Grand Marais nestled on the shore Lake Superior. The pre-dawn morning chill settled to 47 degrees in town near the Bay, but up “the hill” it was an October like 41 at Cook County Airport. Tiny Embarrass well inland and several other sites reported frosty temps as cold as 35 degrees.

Business was brisk at the Java Moose, the kitschy little coffee shop in town with the great view of the harbor. Then it happened. In a voice barely more than a whisper, somebody said the word…”snow.”

Bryan Hansel’s ears perked up when he heard the word. He sent his potentially “all-time state record setting tweet” at precisely 11:26am CDT.

Around Minnesota, an army of  determined weather geeks perked up instantly. Could it be true? Snow recorded in Minnesota in July for the first time ever last weekend?

I decided to go directly to the source. I stalked, and finally cornered, Bryan by phone in Grand Marais Monday afternoon. I paraphrase the mysterious conversation from my notes.

“I was at the Java Moose this morning. The first reports came from a person who had talked to a person who may have talked to another person…so it’s hard to say. The second report seemed more credible. They saw snow…flurries on Saturday at their campsite in the BWCA.”

“Did they take any photos?” I interrogated.

“No, it was just sort of flurries…and melted on when it hit the ground.” Bryan sheepishly admitted.

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Minnesota Climate Working Group: “Dubious”

Pete Boulay sits nearly 300 miles from tiny, rugged Grand Marais.

His comfortable, heated ivory tower-like office space on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus is surrounded by dozens of steel file cabinets stuffed with folders brimming with dated weather records.

It has happened before.

In fact, mysterious…unconfirmed reports of July snowfall are fairly common in these halls. So common they have many names for them including “The Loch Ness Monster.” The incoming “reports” evoke memories of a cheesy 50s detective novel, and often center around the 4th of July.

The Mysterious July 4th Snows of Minnesota

Of all the questions that the State Climatology office receives, this is one of the strangest. Every six months or so a phone call, an e-mail or letter asks about whether or not it has snowed in Northern Minnesota during the month of July. Most of the time the caller/writer is referencing an event they either witnessed or heard about. The cities vary, sometimes as far south as Brainerd but Ely seems to be a perennial favorite.

The strangest part is the date. It is always snowing on the 4th of July in the town they mention. Oddly few can remember what year it was except to usually narrow it down within a decade or so. Also, much like Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, there aren’t any cameras handy to record such a rarity. Requests of a scrap of newspaper that recorded the momentous event have gone unfulfilled. So many unconfirmed reports of July 4th snows have arrived at the office over the years one would think it is a winter wonderland during the “rockets red glare” north of I-94. We often wonder if the people are mistaking Memorial Weekend for the 4th of July.

Upon receiving a new report of July snow, we investigate each one to see if it is plausible. The year is approximated and a search through the paper copies of the nearest National Weather Service Cooperative Station is performed. The temperatures found are almost universally too mild to support snow. The few cases where snowflakes could be plausible, the conditions associated with the date were under a large dome of high pressure with clear skies.

We’re sure these people saw snowflakes according to the vivid descriptions, usually while sitting watching a parade in a place like Ely. Others also have commented on a July 4th snowfall in the Ely area. Few have been able to pinpoint a year. We’ve sifted through years of data gathered by National Weather Service observers in the area and have never been a recorded observation of snowfall. While it is possible that it has snowed somewhere in northeast Minnesota sometime in July we have not as of yet found an official record of it. Bruce Watson, a now-deceased consulting meteorologist whose knowledge of Minnesota’s climate was unsurpassed, took a tougher stance on the subject. In 1997, he wrote: “June has brought measurable snow in the Arrowhead more than once. Snow probably has occurred there in very late August, although we have never found an official record of such. July snow would be an extremely rare event, and has not likely occurred in the last 300 years. Snow probably has never occurred between June 20 and August 20 since the USA took over the region in 1815.”

Yet the stories prevail from some credible sources. An editor from the National Geographic magazine called and inquired about Jim Brandenburg’s story that it had snowed in every month in northern Minnesota. Our response still had to be a shaky “maybe.” Weather stations are few and far between in northeast Minnesota, so it is certainly possible that flurries have fallen between the cracks.

As it stands right now the latest recorded measurable snow in Minnesota remains at 1.5 inches at Mizpah in Koochiching County on June 4, 1935 and the earliest documented snow in Minnesota is a trace that fell at the Duluth Airport on August 31, 1949.

(I added the bold type to reiterate the “still standing” records for the snow season in Minnesota.)

As much as I respect Pete and his excellent working group colleagues, .I pressed him further in writing on the possibly catastrophic tweet. I needed something on the record. I caught him in a rare moment when he is not outside…sniffing the air…grinding the dirt between his fingers, gauging and measuring the intricacies of Minnesota’s changing weather and climate.

Pete Boulay with Minnesota’s State Climatology Office. Image: KARE11 News

Hi Pete:

This is an unconfirmed report…but I would be interested in your take. Is the assertion correct that it has never snowed in MN in July? 

Any brief insight appreciated for today’s 5:48pm chat if the time allows.
 
Thanks for all you do.
 
Paul

Pete’s response was swift…and unequivocal. But like a wise and seasoned climate and weather pro, he left the door open to incontrovertible proof.

Hi Paul,

I’m dubious until proven otherwise… This wouldn’t be the first time I have heard claims of snow in July http://climate.umn.edu/doc/journal/july_snow.htm Much like Bigfoot, photos or concrete documentation can be hard to come by.

It does look like there could have been 850 temps near freezing in the BWCA on Saturday morning so I won’t completely rule it out. I would like to see any reports you have, especially any photos…

-Pete

Dateline: Tofte, Minnesota July 29, 4:23pm CDT

Seeking further ground truth, I tracked down Sarah with Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte a little further down the Shore.

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Did they have any elusive reports of mysterious frozen white hydrometeor crystals falling from the sky this weekend?

“We didn’t have any reports of snowfall from customers. But we did have some “unhappy campers” this weekend because of the wet and cold conditions.”

Was her teasing laughter mocking me? Or was it still more evidence that the elusive, mysterious reports of snowflakes in the BWCA last weekend lacked credibility and confirmation?

In the age of smart phones, one simple photo could shatter the long standing fact that at least one month out of the year…it has never snowed in Minnesota.

But for now, like the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster…Minnesota’s “July Snowsquatch” shall remain a mirage shrouded in mystery.