Winter Outlook: Higher “Winter Misery Index” ahead?

Let’s face it weather fans. Minnesota winters are not what they used to be.

We’ve gotten off pretty easy with winters in the past 20 years. In fact, the past 3 winters fall toward the mild category on the Winter Misery Index. Yes, here in Minnesota we like to quantify our winter misery. Or recent lack thereof.

It’s been 4 years since what many of us would call the last “real winter” in Minnesota. It seems we’re statistically overdue for a more rigorous winter. So will Minnesota get a respectable blast of cold and snow this year? As the Magic 8-ball would say, some “signs point to yes.”

Snowy scene. Image by Paul Huttner/MPR News.

Quantifying Minnesota’s milder winters

The Minnesota DNR Climate Working Group’s Winter Misery Index (WMI) shows a clear trend toward milder winters. The WMI assesses cumulative points for cold and snow in winter.

The Winter Misery Index (WMI) is an attempt to weigh the relative severity of winter when compared with winters of the past. The WMI assigns single points for daily counts of maximum temperatures 10 degrees F or colder, and daily minimums of 0 degrees F or colder. If the minimum temperature drops to -20 degrees or colder greater, eight points are attributed to that day. Snowfall totals of one inch or greater in a day receive one point. Four-inch snowfalls generate four points for the day, an eight-inch snowfall receives a whopping 16 points. To quantify the duration of winter, one point is tallied for every day with a snow depth of 12 inches or greater.

A look at the past 20 winters clearly shows the trend toward less severe winters in Minnesota.

  • The past 3 winters have been mild. (WMI at or below 55 points.)
  • The last “severe” winter in the Twin Cities was 4 years ago in 2013-14. (WMI 207 points)
  • 9 of the past 20 winters (45%) fall in the low moderate or mild category.
  • Just 3 of the past 20 winters (15%) fall into the severe category.
  • The last 2 winters were the 6th and 8th warmest on record in the Twin Cities.
Image: Minnesota DNR Climate Working Group.

Bottom Line: The long term trend strongly favors milder winters in Minnesota.

Snow Trends: Less snow, more rain and ice

Overall snowfall trends in Minnesota are also on the downswing. Our last winter with above average snowfall in the Twin Cities and much of Minnesota was 4 years ago. The Twin Cities picked up a respectable 69.8″ that season.

The 30-year average snowfall at MSP Airport is 54.4 inches. A look at the past 13 winters shows a strong trend toward less snow.

  • 10 of the past 13 winters have produced below average snowfall. (Brown below)
  • Just 3 of the past 13 winters have produced above average snowfall. (Blue below)
Snowfall data for the Twin Cities via NOAA and the Minnesota DNR Climate Working Group.

Milder winters mean more of our winter precipitation falls as rain and ice instead of snow. Minnesota now gets 3-times more winter rain and ice than we did in the 1970s.

Bottom Line: Winters are trending less snowy overall in Minnesota.

Seasonal forecast factors: La Nina

As I’ve written many times before, there are several factors seasonal forecasters evaluate for winter season outlooks. ENSO cycles probably show the most skill and predictive value for North American winter. Tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures are running blue (cooler than average) this fall.

Sea surface temperatures via NOAA.

Model forecasts lean toward La Nina conditions (-0.5C or colder) this winter. I pulled this clip from NOAA’s latest ENSO discussion released Thursday. A La Nina Advisory is in effect. NOAA puts the chances for a La Nina flavored winter at 65% to 75%.

Synopsis: La Niña conditions are predicted to continue (~65-75% chance) at least through the
Northern Hemisphere winter 2017-18.

During October, weak La Niña conditions emerged as reflected by below-average sea surface
temperatures (SSTs) across most of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. For the remainder of the Northern Hemisphere fall and winter 2017-18, a weak La Niña is
favored in the model averages of the IRI/CPC plume (Fig. 6) and also in the North American MultiModel
Ensemble (NMME) (Fig. 7).

The consensus of forecasters is for the event to continue through
approximately February-April 2018. In summary, La Niña conditions are predicted to continue (~65-75%
chance) at least through the Northern Hemisphere winter (click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the
chance of each outcome for each 3-month period).


La Nina winters statistically tend to produce colder than average jet stream patterns over the northern tier of the U.S.


In Minnesota La Nina winters tend colder than average about 70 to 80 percent of the time.


La Nina winters favor above average snowfall, especially in northern Minnesota.



Bottom Line: The La Nina event this winter favors a colder and snowier winter for Minnesota.

Out on a limb

Seasonal weather forecasts are like crawling out on a long tree limb. Hopefully you don’t get sawed off.

Two years ago I forecast a mild El Nino winter. That worked out perfectly. Last year’s pattern gave me less confidence going in. I forecast a slightly warmer than average winter. That was too conservative. Last winter was 6 degrees warmer than average.

The truth? Our pronounced long term winter warming trend in Minnesota is making it tough to get a good old-fashioned winter anymore. We still get one every 3-4 years it seems. And we’re due.

Basically I see this winter as a battle between two trends.

  1. The statistical trend for colder and snowier winter in La Nina years.
  2. The long-term trend for milder winters in Minnesota due to climate change.
Climate Central

So here’s my best estimate at a winter outlook. Confidence is medium this year.

  • Colder and snowier than last winter, which was the 6th warmest on record in Minnesota.
  • Temps for meteorological winter (Dec-Feb) 2016-17 should land between 0 (average) to 3 degrees warmer than average across Minnesota.
  • Snowfall in the Twin Cities likely between 40 and 50 inches. (30-year average is 54.4″)
  • Northern Minnesota may see snowfall totals of 60″ to 70″+ this winter.
  • Snow cover should be more persistent this winter than the past 3 years.
  • A colder than average November is freezing lakes earlier. Better news for Pond hockey events this winter?
  • Look for at least one Polar Vortex outbreak on your national newscasts this winter.
  • I can see between 15 and 22 sub-zero nights in the Twin Cities this winter. (Average is 24)
  • The Twin Cities will likely get close to or hit -20F this winter.

Overall I expect a more rigorous winter than the past 3 years. Maybe we can earn our reputation as the Frozen Tundra back again during Super Bowl week? How do you think this winter will go down?

Stay warm. And stay tuned.

  • Presley Martin

    It’s hard to go against that gut feeling that this is going to be a colder and snowier winter, but I think by the end of February we’ll be well on our way to an early warm spring.

  • The trend toward milder winters is unmistakable. We are seeing more garden pests than ever, and growing zones are moving north.

    Yes, we are due for a more typical winter, and we may see a “stuck” jet stream serving up long stretches of cold, followed by unseasonal spring warmth instead of the more rapid changes that we remember as kids.

  • Philip A. Rutter

    JUST A DAD-GUM COTTON-PICKEN MINUTE!! This concept of “Winter Misery” is just flat WRONG.

    🙂 I’m an expert on winter misery; I’m not originally from Minnesota; I’ve just lived here the past 45 years. My childhood was mostly in the tropics – so – I do understand the difference between “warm” and “cold”.

    Being humorous, but serious here. “Cold” does NOT cause “Misery”. You can, you know, put on warm mittens, snuggies, and a hat. Native Minnesotans are genetically resistant to those adjustments; they would rather indulge in “Minnesota Macho!”, which means no hat, in a 30 mph wind at -20°; no gloves or mittens ever, and girls on the way to school must not wear pants; dresses, at all costs.

    Um, yeah, you will be miserable. Having grown up in Guam and Hawaii – I put on a hat, and mittens- and am totally comfy and enjoy snow and brilliant January sunshine on frosty trees. Love it.

    There IS a “Winter Misery” that has been creeping up on us though – and it’s MUD.

    The horror. It used to be “mud season” was maybe two weeks long in March and April – but now we have dramatically warmer winters. New statistical proof; when I moved to Fillmore County in the ’70’s , every farm here owned 3-5 snowmobiles, and used them all winter. Now- only about one farm in 20 owns even one. There’s no usable snow for more than 12 hours at a time; hasn’t been for 20 years.

    So – Mud Season now runs from – November through the end of April. Every blinking week. Thaw, slip, trip, fall, slide – on ice under the mud, on foot or in a vehicle, all winter long.

    THAT’S our Misery now. I move for a MUD MISERY index. Ok, go ahead and just run it along side your silly “cold” based one – I think we need to know both.

    We can be miserable in many diverse ways, you know. Celebrate our Diversity!

    • Chris C

      Could not agree more. If you are outside in MN and miserable you’ve dressed wrong. Take ownership of the mistake. However, on the other side, being from the tropics, do you agree there isn’t much you can do about heat and humidity? I contend misery starts about 80 deg and 60 dew points – i.e. just a normal day in Guam or Hawaii. I hide inside in the summer to avoid being arrested for too few clothes and still being miserably hot, lol.

      • Philip A. Rutter

        Chris – there is ONE thing that can be done about heat and humidity – which I learned first hand in Guam in the 1st grade. I warn you; you won’t like it – but the biology is absolutely sound

        Ignore it. Your body WILL adapt, even if you’re a northern European type with light skin. As a kid – we didn’t think about it. Most of my friends had brown skin, which no one ever noticed; but they were not really more adapted than I was; we ran around like maniacs and never thought about it.

        Air conditioning makes the heat far, far worse, when you have to go out in it. Your body, physiology, psychology – will all adapt to the hot climate, if you stay in the heat. It’s how everyone survives in the tropics; it’s just not that bad if you’re used to it. Air conditioning never lets you adapt.

        I really noticed this when I was going to college in northern Ohio, and going home to Hawaii for summer, and sometimes Christmas. The first 3 days or so – I would suffer, every time. But, I did know, I would adapt; and I always did. In 4 days or so – I’d quit even noticing the heat.

        Your physiology is basically conservative – it won’t change unless it really has to. If you are going back into air conditioning in 15 minutes; it will never adapt. You have to be out in the heat- literally for at least 2 days, before the changes start. But have faith – they will. Ask all the folks who live in India, Africa, South China.

        Which is not to say it doesn’t ever get too hot even for them; it does. Then they adapt behaviorally; get out of it. Climate change is now making that hard or impossible in some places; a bad thing.

        Kipling had it down: “Only mad dogs, and Englishmen, go out in the noonday sun.” The locals have more sense.

        • Chris C

          Concur, it’s hard to acclimatize in MN when a few hot days are followed by a cool day. And many of us work in conditioned offices. We have what, a dozen or so hot humid days over 3 months. I travel to many points south and even HI a few times a year, but even with that I don’t acclimatize. Should I move I know I’ll survive though.

    • C.M. Jones

      “I put on a hat, and mittens- and am totally comfy and enjoy snow and brilliant January sunshine on frosty trees. Love it. Yep, even at -30°.”

      I concur almost entirely. It’s the sunshine part I can’t relate to. I’m an overcast guy, probably because I have sensitive eyes that recoil from light even when shielded by shades. Thick clouds make me very happy. They’ve had a euphoric effect on me as far back as I can remember.

      But yes, those who decry Minnesota winters are also those who refuse to equip themselves to deal with them. I have a neighbor from California who still pretends that he resides in San Diego. When temps fall below freezing, as they usually do about six months a year here, he starts his truck remotely from the comfort of his home, allows the heater to create a balmy setting for fifteen minutes, and then races to the driver’s seat in shorts and a t-shirt. It’s an absurd sight to say the least, but it’s not as silly as choosing to live in a place whose environment you do everything you can to avoid. If you really despise cold, Minnesota is the dumbest state to call home in the Continental US. Embrace the chill or head to Florida for good!

      I see more and more people choosing similarly scant attire when thermometers suggest that coats would be the logical selection. While a portion of this phenomenon probably stems from a growing reliance on artificial heat and a lack of interest in spending time outdoors, I attribute much of the trend to the overall slovenliness our society has adopted. There seems to be a growing resistance against the convention of putting on clothes. What used to be casual wear (e.g., slacks and a button-down shirt) is now deemed formal and uncomfortable and is shunned at all cost. Borderline nudity has become the regrettable norm, even when frostbite is a clear and present danger. We might be a decade away from the widespread use of swimwear in January — not because winters will be warm but because people will refuse to get dressed.