Just ask Patricia Ross, a 74-year-old who grew up on the Old Mission Peninsula. She remembers when winters like this seemed to come every year.
“This is more like an old-fashioned winter like years ago, you know,” said Ross, who was recently celebrating the holidays at the Traverse City Senior Center. “It’s been really cold and snowy this winter.”
For people who have lived Up North for just five or 10 years, this winter (which technically just began on Dec. 21, even though it has been here for weeks) might seem a bit jarring. It has been snowy and cold.
Extraordinarily cold, in fact. “This cold, this early and this long -- I’d have to say is a pretty big story,” said Scott Rozanski, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gaylord. “It’s pretty cold. ... Had you moved up here five years ago and you’d lived up here for the last five years, you’d say, ‘I’ve never seen it like this.’”
‘LIKE A BULLDOZER’
It has been especially cold since Dec. 6, Rozanski said.
In Traverse City, the average temperature for December through the middle of the month was seven degrees below normal, and there is no warmup in sight.
What’s more, that average temperature includes two days at the beginning of the month which saw high temperatures climb into the 50s. Without those outliers, the average temperature is actually much colder.
“The warmest it’s been since the 6th is 21 degrees,” Rosanski said. “You’ve been below freezing for 11 days.”
Will it last through January, February and March?
Rozanski said we’ll have to wait to find out.
“How well can we predicte it? Exact details are not really what an extended forcast provides,” Rozanski said. “There’s a lot of things that could happen and take place in the next couple of weeks that aren’t necessarily on the screen.”
That said, Rozanski said cold air is stubborn.
“Honestly, cold air is very bullish,” he said. “When cold air settles in, it’s hard to dislodge it. Warm air can be blown aside. Cold air just kind of comes in like a bulldozer.”
LOTS AND LOTS OF SNOW
With the cold comes snow. And lots of it. No matter what way you cut it, this year’s winter packed a heck of a wallop even before winter arrived officially on the calendar.
Towns across northwestern Michigan were well above average for snowfall in December, said Joe Charlevoix, a meteorologist for 7&4 News in Traverse City.
“It’s pretty phenomenal,” Charlevoix said. “Gaylord has already picked up more than half a season’s worth of snow, and we’re not even into winter yet.”
Gaylord gets on average 145 inches of snow per season. As of Dec. 17, the city had already seen 74 inches. Elsewhere, the numbers were above normal. Petoskey had 37 inches when they on average would have had 29. Traverse City had about 50 percent more snowfall than normal, clocking in at 34 inches a week before Christmas.
COLD AIR ON TOP OF US
Do the early signs mean a long season of skiing, ice fishing and snowmobiling is ahead of us?
“You can’t really draw that conclusion yet,” Charlevoix said. “The reason being is the big pattern can shift quickly; that cold air is always there in the winter, but it’s not always on top of us.”
A lot of recent years, that cold has stayed a hundred or so miles north of Northern Michigan.
That’s because an west-to-east jet stream brings moderate temperatures across the country. Lower Michigan, during many of the last five or so winters, has gotten warmer air from the Pacific Ocean.
This year we have gotten a good oldfashioned arctic blast. And if that arctic pattern holds, the coldest temperatures could be yet to come. The coldest average temperatures in the region typically come the third week of January, Charlevoix said.
The cold is, for the most part, the reason we’ve gotten so much snow -- when that bitter cold air sweeps across the warmer Great Lakes, it brings snow.
Charlevoix, a U.P. native, said this winter so far harkens back to blustery winters of the 1980s.
“It is kind of nice to see kind of a regular winter for people,” he said.
SKI SLOPES 100 PERCENT OPEN
The cold and snow is great news for winter businesses.
Crystal Mountain opened 100 percent of its slopes earlier than ever this year, said Jim MacInnes, the resort’s president and chief executive officer.
That goes against the trend of recent years. “It used to be that early, even before Thanksgiving, we often had a chance to open, but in recent years it’s been difficult and Thanksgiving openings have been really rare,” MacInnes said.
MacInnes said his resort has invested heavily in snow-making equipment and that’s helped them take advantage of the December freeze.
They’ve also invested in a winch groomer, which enables them to move snow uphill and spread it to bare patches that were once out of reach.
MacInnes is optimistic about the rest of the season, though he won’t predict if the weather will be favorable for winter sports throughout.
“It’s really hard to predict the future of a whole winter,” he said.
MacInnes believes the artificial and natural snow base the resort is building up through December will mean a long season, though.
“Even if we have a warmup, we’re in a very resilient position right now,” he said.
A bicycle got caught in a deep freeze parked outside of the Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City. (Photo by Patrick Sullivan)
‘IT’S REALLY A WINTER’
Kristin Levesque, co-owner of Timber Ridge Resort, said she remembers those hardcore winters from the 1970s and 1980s.
Then she moved to Florida for a couple of decades before she returned home.
“This is my first year that it’s really a winter,” Levesque said. “I think I would have been shocked if it was my first year back and it was like this.”
The snow is great for her resort, a crosscountry skiing and snow biking hub.
They opened before Thanksgiving this year, the earliest in Levesque’s memory.
“Literally overnight Saturday we had all that snow and it was good enough to go out and groom it,” Levesque said.
She said she believes they should be in good shape now no matter what the rest of the winter brings. They’ve got a 12-inch base already, and if a thaw makes snow disappear elsewhere, the high-elevation, tree-covered trails around Timber Ridge tend to stay snowcovered further into the year.
“We typically will have snow here when you don’t have it downtown or even a few miles away from here,” she said.