Back When I Was a Kid, We Had Real Winters!

March is the snowiest month. We get lots of snow in December. Sometimes it is too cold to snow. When I was a kid (whenever that was) there were more snow storms, the total snow cover was much, much deeper, and when it snowed…it snowed, by golly!

Such are a few of the things people say about the weather. Of special interest to me tonight, as our region is engulfed in a newsworthy blizzard, is the idea that “these days” have less snow than “those days”…according to every one of every age of every region that gets snow.

Have you ever thought this? Have you ever heard this said? If you live in a region that gets snow in a regular basis, and this does not remind you of several conversations you’ve had, then you must be really focused on something because you have not been paying attention.

But is it true? Were winters “those days” more snowy than winters “these days”?

Please keep in mind that none of this applies if you spent key parts of your childhood living in a different part of the country. Like me. Since I moved to Minnesota, winters here have perplexed be somewhat. I’m from the Northeast. As far as I can tell, Minnesota has had exactly two blizzards. One was on Armistice Day in the year 1940 (16.7 inches in the Twin Cities but over 2 feet to the north and 20 foot drifts in Wilmer, 49 dead), the other on Halloween in the year 1991 (37 inches in Duluth, 22 dead). Both involved heavy snow, lots of wind, and other complications (like time of year, time of day, and wet or icy conditions). All the rest of those “blizzards”…nothing more than flurries by Yankee standards! Nonetheless, Minnesotans love their snow, they think they have a lot of snow, and Minnesotans of all ages wax nostalgic about the time, “back then,” when they were around five to fifteen years of age, that there were many, many, many very large snow storms every winter.

So what is the truth about Minnesota weather? How different was your childhood from the present? How do previous Decembers compare to the current one, which has been pretty much devoid of snow until the “blizzard” that is raging outside my window now, laying down many tenths of inches of snow and causing hundreds of Minnesota drivers to spin off the roads?

Well, I assure you that this has more to do with your psychology than with any climate-based realities. Chances are you think you had more snow as a kid because of two effects; 1) You were shorter. The snow seemed deeper. Well, it was deeper, relatively…and 2) You have conflated several different years, so you are thinking of many snow storms that actually happened over a period of several years as having happened in one year, and thinking of that year as typical. These two effects combined result in your climatological memory of many deep snow falls on a regular basis when you were a kid. But chances are, it never happened.

It is possible that it did happen. It is possible that you remember a few years that happened to have a lot of snow falls, and a lot of them were heavy. We can investigate that. But first, you need to do something. You need to lay down the facts of what you think is true, prior to looking at the data. So, here’s three questions I have for you:

1) How many inches fall before you can call a storm a large snowstorm? Three? (That seems kind of wimpy.) Four? (Really? Four? Seriously?) How about six. Six inches or more is “a lot of snow.” OK, that is just a suggestion. You pick whatever number you want. Write it down. I’m going with six.

2) How many snowfalls of that size per year is “a lot of snow” or “snow like I remember it” or whatever. You have most snow falling during December, January, February, March. So, over four months how many snow falls of the size you think is “a lot of snow” seem, according to your memory, to have fallen? One per month for a total of four? Huh. You think that’s a lot? Does not sound like a lot. How about two per month. That’s not many, but it adds up. Three might be too many. That would give you 12. Maybe you’d pick ten. Eight to ten snow falls over 6 inches in a given season (including the aforementioned four months as well as October, November and April, just in case). If you picked these numbers, your idealized Wayback Winter would have had a minimum of eight storms of six inches each. Maybe those are your numbers. Maybe you’ve got different numbers.

Whatever. Write it down.

3) How much snow was on the ground in December in your idealized Wayback Winter? Total. If there were two big storms, that could have put 12 inches on the ground by the end of the month. That sounds like a lot, but maybe that’s what you think. Maybe you’ll be conservative and say something like six. Six inches of snow fallen from the sky in the month of December, unmelted. Or some other number? Whatever. Write it down. I’m going with six inches.

OK, let’s look at the facts. The following data are for the Twin Cities region of Minnesota.

How much snow falls per month? Is March really the snowiest month?

March is not the snowiest month. There are a lot of ways to look at this, but one source suggests
that the snowiest month is January, with March the second snowiest. After that, it’s December (third snowiest), February, November, April, then only trace amounts in some of the other months.

How many storms of X inches do we get per year?

Let’s say you were born in 1984 and lived in the Twin Cities since then. You imagine that winters were snowier “back then” when you were little. Given the above discussion, you’ve decided that a “snowy winter” meant six inches were on the ground at the end of December and a total of six storms of five inches or more happened during the entire winter season. Notice that your estimate has become more conservative than what you made above, because you are staring to learn that I rarely write blog posts that confirm your preconceptions, even when I’ve tricked you into having a particular preconception.

Anyway, this would all be in contrast to “these days” when we seem to have vast periods of time with no snow at all, bare exposed ground through much of December, and hardly any big storms.

So, let’s contrast “these days” (say, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008) with “those days” (say, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990).

Here’s the numbers. For “these days” there were no six-inch-plus storms in 2008, and only one each in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Pitiful. The occurrence of five-inch-plus storms was four, three, one and one; the occurrence of four-inch-plus storms was four, three, four and one. In other words, the total number of storms per year that are six inches or more currently is fewer than one on average, and if we drop our standards to four-inch storms, the average number per year goes up to a pitiful three. Wow that’s way less than our memory, which is something like six storms of five inches or more.

Now lets compare “these days” to “those days” using the aforementioned years.

The number of six-inch storms in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990 were zero, one, two and zero. That is the same as “these days” in that the average number of six-inch storms then and now is 0.75 per year. When we look at five- and four-inch storms, it’s worse… the total number of each type of storm is less during “those days” than during “these days.”

So, given this particular comparison, the idea that there was more snow…more storms and more snow in at least some of those storms…is wrong. That is a meteorologically reconstructed memory. Which is why we use science, and not culture, to characterize and study the weather!

Indeed, the total number of storms for these four-year periods is roughly what some of your reconstructed memories of the past could have attributed to a single year.

But wait, I could be making this up! I could have picked years that happen to be lean from the past. Why DID I pick those years anyway? Well, I’ll tell you. Those are the years that would have pertained to a particular person I was talking to about this the other day. But it is true that different years could give different results.

It turns out that if I had shifted the “back then” years by one, to include 1991, then the year of the great Halloween Blizzard would have been included. That year included several large storms, not just the Halloween storm. However, if I re-calculate the averages over four years including 1991 and dropping 1987, those averages become more like “these days” but do not significantly exceed them. If the Halloween Storm is part of your childhood memory, that does not mean that winters were generally snowier “back then”…but that parturition year would be a source of memories of big storms and more storms that you could then use to fill in the other years that are actually rather pitiful in snow storm frequency and snow storm amounts.

If you still don’t believe me, you can do this experiment. Before looking at the data, if you are a Minnesota resident from around the Twin Cities, pick the four or five years that would best represent your youthful memories. Then, go here and find those years and compare. Go down to the part of the web page with all the years in a big table. Click on each of the years from your youth and inspect the data. If you find a youth with a lot more snow storms and a lot more snow per storm, report back, we want to know!!!

Was December snowier back then?

Not according to the data I obtained in the comparison outlined above. The average number of inches on the ground at the end of December for the “these days” period and the “back then” period is the same. Four.

Go figure.

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18 Responses to “Back When I Was a Kid, We Had Real Winters!”

  1. December 9th, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    We came back to Minnesota in 1981 after living somewhere snow-free, and what I notice these days is that we never have snow on the ground. In this, I’m at least comparatively correct. Looking at the mean minimum standing snow amount (after snow has started and stuck for more than a day) for each month, November through April, for the winters of 1981-1982 through 1984-1985 and 2005-2006 through 2008-2009, I get: 3, 3.25, 7, 3, 1.5 then versus 0, 1.75, 0.75, 0.5, 0, 0 now.

    Admittedly, my childhood stretch does include 1983-1984, which I’ve heard referred to as one of our snowiest modern years. However, just looking at the months in which we’ve seen bare ground from December through March, there are six in my “then” sample versus twelve (of sixteen) in my “now” sample. That includes two winters in the “now” sample without any months in which snow was on the ground the entire month.

  2. December 9th, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Greg Laden says:

    What about the exact location you lived? A pretty good percentage of the days that Mineapolis is ground-clear of snow the suburbs are not owing to various effects. So if your childhood was in a suburb and your now-hood in the city, that would add to the effect.

    But yes, the response that “oh, but the snow is not as much on the ground these days” is the most common single response to the information in this post. (BTW, it was Amanda’s reaction as well.) It may be true it may not be true. I tend to think it is true. On the other hand, I used to think that there was just more snow back then as well…

    I’ll be investigating this further.

  3. December 9th, 2009 at 11:45 am

    justawriter says:

    One factor you are leaving out is wind. Even a one-inch snowfall can seem more significant when ten square miles of snow is dropped in your yard because it is the only available obstruction. Over here in North Dakota, the most memorable storms are the ones that come with gale force winds. It was a big storm, dropping a foot or so of snow, but the drifts were legendary, with house and even trains completely covered with snow.

  4. December 9th, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I lived in a local divot in the landscape, so that almost certainly enhances my perception of change. It doesn’t change the numbers, though.

  5. December 9th, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Even a one-inch snowfall can seem more significant when ten square miles of snow is dropped in your yard because it is the only available obstruction.

    Tell me about it! Our cars are currently trapped by a huge drift in front of the garage.

  6. December 9th, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Jared says:

    I live in south Louisiana… what is this snow you speak of?

    Seriously, I’m of the opinion snowfall in Louisiana has INCREASED in recent years in volume (past decade) but decreased in frequency and shifted to mid December through January as opposed to the February through March which is far more common, historically. (I remember it being cold for Mardi Gras and warm for Christmas as a child; I always wondered where the “sweater for Christmas” thing came from.

  7. December 9th, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    NoAstronomer says:

    I recall a snow-storm from when I was six and living in England. I distinctly recall that the snow was up to the top of the gate posts, and up to my chest. I could only move in the areas my father had dug out. To my mind it was the most incredible event conceivable, comparable to the end of the world.

    I went back to that house (we moved out soon after) last year for the first time in four decades. Those ‘gate-posts’ are like 2 feet high. I must have been a pretty short six year-old.

  8. December 9th, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Viking says:

    Good analysis Greg, growing up in NW WI in the eighties I remember the huge mounds of snow left by the snowplow – big enough to dig tunnels and caverns in all winter long. In the late nineties as a teenager I wondered why it didn’t snow as much any more as the snow piles kept getting smaller and smaller. People are often reluctant to accept that their own changing perceptions and the fallibility of memory can be responsible for the phenomena they observe. On a related note, I have many distinct memories of sledding down very long and steep hills as a child – it would be fun to talk to relatives and try to find them as an adult to see how long and steep they really are.

  9. December 9th, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Tracy says:

    I think that indeed, some of the sense that there was more snow “back then” is more a result of accumulation–fewer freeze/thaws. I don’t necessarily remember more snow storms when I was young. What I don’t remember is the snow melting in between. I’m too lazy to look up weather data for my area just now, but I do feel that when I was a kid, it would have been a remarkable thing, something to be commented on, should it have rained in January. Happy to know if anyone else wants to look that up.

    In the meantime, I’m going to go downstairs and wait to be picked up from work in the truck (because nothing else could be gotten out of our driveway, through the ten inches of wet snow) and go back to my house, which has no power (no heat, no water, no lights) and think about how snowy “now” is.

  10. December 9th, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Tracy, I’m very glad to hear that imaginary boyfriends are good for getting people home in the snow. Take care and stay warm.

  11. December 9th, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Sarah says:

    What if you remember it the other way around? I grew up in Colorado and I recall a couple of really awesome storms from 5-8 (and I was right, during one of those years we had our last big blizzard until a couple years ago). Then we went through about 10 years or so of drought when snow rarely stayed on the ground more than a day and we could have months in winter with none at all! Then of course the year I head to the Pacific NW we get an awesome blizzard (3-7ft) and it’s been snowier than my entire childhood since then.

    *sigh* Why did I move to the cold rain, I loved snow.

  12. December 10th, 2009 at 5:16 am

    Carolyn says:

    Well, my current city (Toronto) just had the first snowless November since the beginning of the weather records (as noted by all the news agencies). Climate change does mean some places will have less snow.

  13. December 10th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Erin R says:

    As another Pacific Northwester, I can state with some certainty that on the floor of the Willamette Valley snow accumulation has been far more frequent in the last few years. How do I know? When you’re a kid, growing up on the no-snow valley floor, every snow day you get is a very, very big deal.

    In elementary school, (95-2000) we didn’t have a single snow day in my town. We had one two hour delay. I remember it very well, because the town next to us got out of school for the day. In middle school, the first week back from Winter Break we had three snow days in a row. It was crazy. Then, high school. Sophomore year we had a snow day in March, Junior year we had four or five, and Senior year we had four or five, and snow on Christmas. And in the years since I’ve left the PNW, we’ve had two more winters with enough snow for school cancellation (and enough snow for flight cancellation, which made coming home for Christmas last year very, very difficult…)

    This is only over two decades, of course. I’m curious as to how these two decades compare to ones in the past…

  14. December 10th, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Leo says:

    I grew up in Central NYS, and lived in that region until just a couple of years ago. It’s certainly my perception that there was much more snow twenty and thirty years ago than there has been in the past decade. Many years that we went trick-or-treating, it was snowing. It was always cold! I recall at least an inch or two of snow on the ground at Thanksgiving and there was almost always a couple of feet or more of snow by Christmas. We regularly had a January thaw where it would get freakishly warm for a few days (sometimes into the mid-50s), melting most of the snow off. This would be followed by two months of sheer icy hell. We actually looked forward to a winter where it would snow an inch or two every single day instead of the sleet and freezing rain we usually got (on top of the snow). It was not uncommon to have a blizzard on or about Easter either. Usually it was well into May before all the snow was gone.

    I also remember our school using up every single one of its snow days each year.

    I like to think my memories are fairly accurate, if only because from 1981 through 1986 I delivered newspapers Monday through Saturday. On bike in the late spring, and on foot in the winters. Also, it was a 3/4 of a mile to the school bus stop so it’s safe to say I was outside a lot.

    That seemed to change somewhere starting in the 1990s, but there have been at least a couple of notable blizzards and extraordinarily snowy seasons in the past few years. For instance, just a few years ago I recall us having 100″ of snow on the ground by Christmas.

  15. December 10th, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Leo, are you from Watertown????

  16. December 11th, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    flynn says:

    I used to think we had more snow when I was a kid, too. Then I figured out that my parents shoveled our huge long wide driveway, and our neighbors shoveled the nearby driveway, and the result was awesome tunnel-and-fort piles. Plus, yes, I was short. And I would spend as much time as possible dragging around in the snow, licking icicles and soaking through pair after pair of mittens, which was quite different from my usual daily round.

    I figured out the truth when I remembered that any significant amount of snow would close the schools. On snow days, we were required to watch the educational fill-in programming that the school system provided (my mom was a hard-core ex-teacher). If we had had a lot of snow, I would remember those shows more than vaguely, and I would be able to think of more snow forts and tunnels, not just a few spread over ~12 years. Come to think of it, most of our snowmen wound up with a lot of grass in them.

  17. December 11th, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Leo says:

    Hey Greg. I’m from Cooperstown actually. Watertown’s winters were much worse!

    Offtopic: Ooo… I really like this WP Ajax Edit Comments plugin. I’m going to have to add it to some of my blogs.

  18. December 11th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    My memories of snow amounts relate to whether I could play in it/with it, or whether I had to shovel it/drive through it. Once I grew up and had the responsibility instead of the pleasure of dealing with the snow, the remembered totals got higher, and then after I switched to front wheel drive, they dropped again. But who these days needs to remember to shift up into 2nd gear to climb a snowy slippery curving hill so you don’t skid all over with rear wheel drive? I’m sure as I age and become less physically capable of dealing with snow disasters, they snowfall inches will start to increase again. Then it’s time to retire to Arizona.

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