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Is Our Good Old Fashioned Hard Winter Going Soft?

Written by: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian NWS White Lake

Feb 8th 2009

Our Winter of 2008-09 surely has fit the bill of a hard (or harsh) cold and snowy winter.  You  know...those type of winters our parents, grandparents or great - grandparents  (depending on your age) told you about and how they “walked miles through the cold and snow”. Of course we’ve had cold winters and we’ve had snowy winters but to have both a cold and snowy winter together and last much of the season becomes more unusual but it does happen. Below is our Winter 2008-09 data through January for all three sites. While it has been cold, just as impressive has been the snowfall this winter thus far and the departure from normal as of the end of January!




To put this in better perspective however, one has to look back at the top 20 coldest and snowiest winters, together. Some sort of guideline (or criteria) has to be agreed upon for a cold and snowy winter and strictly speaking, the simplest is the use the top 20 list from both categories. Obviously one can have a winter place in 25 thplace for coldest and 21st for snowiest and it still would be “cold and snowy” but some sort of cut off is still needed.              

When checking this group together, one then gets a better perspective (using Detroit’s top 20 data base for the longest comparison) on how often the two work in conjunction to give us a truly cold and snowy winter. Remember, winter temperatures used go back to the winter of 1870-71 and snowfall to 1880-81.  Therefore, this is well over a century of data and when the winter places in both lists, it is fairly impressive! Just a bit better than  5% of the time in the last 128 years (1880-81 into 2008-09) has Detroit's winters made both top 20 lists with those seven winters.

Interestingly, as you peruse the top 20 coldest and snowiest winters, seven winters “cross paths” (in other words, that winter was both cold and snowy enough to make both lists).   Note, I inserted our winter average temperature /22.4/ and snowfall /48.8/ thus far this winter through the end of January. And while it is likely (but not a certainly) we will place in the top 20 snowiest, warmer weather during February may very well raise us out of the top 20 coldest. It wouldn’t take that much (just a degree or so when all three months are averaged) and February looks like it will live up to its reputation from our analogues of milder yet busy February. Winter enthusists shouldn't dispare, however, as I'm fairly certain our good old fashioned winter hasn't totally given up the roost - just yet!





Both Snowy and cold top 20 Winters


1880-81        1903-04        1977-78

1884-85        1911-12        1981-82





Our below normal temperature departures for January were much worse than December’s.