Commentary: Has this winter really been that bad?
I don't think it's incorrect to say that most people in this region are tired of winter weather. We're used to winter; we're not necessarily used to it lasting into April without a break.
During my first job in journalism, I realized there was one sure-fire way to make sure I was writing something that would get read: by volunteering for the weather story. I don't know how it is in the rest of the world, but in North Dakota, weather drives almost everything. Conversation? Check. Travel? Check. Recreation? Check. Farm and ranch work? Double check.
I never wanted to be hyperbolic in my stories. Every storm isn't a blizzard. Every winter isn't the worst one ever experienced. Looking at the data can help tell the story. And sometimes it could help show people that, no, winters weren't always harder years ago, no matter how high the snow piles seemed in your childhood memories.
Thinking back on those days of digging into weather data got me wondering — are all of us just being whiny this year? How bad has this winter really been?
Luckily, the National Weather Service has an extensive historical database of observed weather to draw on. I went through many points in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota to see how snowfall totals and temperatures stack up to normal and record values.
Many parts of North Dakota and South Dakota were below normal on snowfall throughout the winter (defined by the National Weather Service as December, January and February) but have caught up to or surpassed normal snowfall through the early spring. (Spring is defined as March, April and May. So we have time to get some spring weather in spring yet!) Points in Minnesota varied, but most seemed to be near normal.
So, if you're in those three states, it hasn't been that odd of a winter, from a snowfall standpoint.
Now, if you're in Montana, you can complain all you want about this winter and spring. I checked the data for points across the state, and pretty much everywhere was above average and most also are on track for setting records. Some already have set records.
Winter temperatures varied throughout the region, with periods of above-normal temperatures and periods of below-normal temperatures. That seems pretty typical. But the spring months so far have trended more toward below-normal. April, in particular, has been quite a bit colder than normal. In Bismarck, N.D., no daily high temperature through the tenth day of April had reached the "normal" high, and most days have been more than 20 degrees below normal.
So, yeah, there's no doubt that this has been a bad April, weather-wise. Last year, we could check cows in light jackets or no jackets. We didn't have to worry about anything freezing at night. This year, someone bundles up every couple hours around the clock to check for new calves. Farmers sometimes are in the field by now, or at least can see the day coming. This year, most fields still are covered in snow.
But as I clicked through the historical data for city after city in the region, one thing occurred to me. On every graph of every year, the snow eventually stopped accumulating, and the temperatures eventually began to climb. Winter weather always stops, even when it feels like it's lasted forever.
Winter weather has lasted longer than we'd like and continues to hold on. But eventually, we'll get in the fields. The cows will go to pasture. And we'll be on to swearing that it's hotter than it used to be.