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The White Hurricane

Robert Downes - December 13th, 2010
Only a fool would try to predict the weather, but let’s get a little
wild & crazy here and give it a go anyway: It’s going to snow this
winter.
Ha-ha. If any of us had worries about not celebrating a white
Christmas this year, they were put to rest by last week’s dump,
courtesy of a lake effect snowstorm that blew the white stuff all the
way to Tennessee. Midway through last week, we had already received 4
feet, with buckets of snowflakes still falling.
So how much can we expect this year?
“A lot,” according to those in the know, owing to the fact that Lake
Michigan and Lake Superior reached some of their highest temperatures
ever last summer. This has created ideal conditions for lake effect
snow. Cold air passing over all that warm water forms the endless gray
clouds and snowfall that blankets the Michigan coast.
The Farmers’ Almanac is terse in its prediction for the coming winter:
“Cold and very snowy.” No surprise there.
We have a high bar to reach if we hope to hit a record for snowfall
this year, however. That was set in the winter of 1978-’79 when 391.9
inches of snow fell on the town of Delaware in the U.P.
By contrast, Michigan usually averages 30-150 inches in the lower
peninsula and 150-plus above the Bridge.
This year, we could see more snow than usual because of two factors.
The first is due to the record warmth of the Great Lakes. According
to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2010
was the fourth hottest summer on record in the United States. 2010
also tied with 1998 as the hottest year on record for the entire
world. The resulting forest fires in Russia reportedly killed
thousands of people.
Over here, the surface temperature of Lake Michigan reached 80 degrees
last summer, within a degree of the record. Those high temperatures
produce the bands of lake effect snow which were so familiar on the
weather reports last week.
The second factor driving more snow our way is that of what the
National Weather Service (NWS) calls “borderline strong La Nina
conditions” in the tropical Pacific Ocean. In other words, a large
mass of colder-than-usual water that influences the weather up our
way.
The NWS claims that below-average temperatures in “a very large area”
of the southern Pacific will mean colder temperatures than usual in
Alaska and the Western United States, all the way through the Great
Lakes. The NWS also predicts higher than average snowfall. So pop the
champagne corks if skiing and snowmobiling are your thing.
Obviously, it’s hard to second-guess the weather. Following the
record warm year of 1998, Michigan suffered one of its snowiest
Januaries ever. The Blizzard of 1999 resulted in a snow emergency
declaration by President Clinton, with 29 Michigan counties eligible
for federal disaster assistance. The NWS reports it was the second
worst blizzard to hit Chicago in the 20th century. Temperatures hit
-20 and 73 people died.
But Michigan has been through many other big storms, such as the
“White Hurricane” of 1913, also called “The Big Blow.” That storm,
from Nov. 7-10, 1913 “may have been the worst U.S. winter storm on
record,” according to epicdisasters.com. “It killed more than 250,
primarily from ships that were sunk. Five of the 12 ships downed by
the storm were never found.”
During the White Hurricane, cyclonic winds of 60-90 mph lasted up to
16 hours, with waves on the Great Lakes reaching 35 feet in a November
gale similar to the one that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.
Whiteouts covered the Midwest and Ontario. “The cyclonic system, with
its counterclockwise winds, was, in fact, a hurricane,” claims
epicdisasters.com.
Will we have another White Hurricane this winter? Only Jack Frost
knows for sure, but it might not be a bad idea to lay in a little
extra firewood and a few cans of beans, just in case.

MORE STUFF ON SNOW:
• Coldest temperature ever recorded in Michigan: -51 at Vanderbilt on
Feb. 9, 1994.
• Cost of a new snowplow truck: $170,000.
• Gallons of fuel used by a typical snowplow truck in a 24-hour period: 200.
• Number of trucks in the Grand Traverse County Road Commission fleet: 55.
• Cost to put all GTCRC trucks in service during a 24-hour period: $75,000.
• Gallons of gas and diesel fuel used by the GTCRC in 2008: 241,684.

-- statistics courtesy of GTCRC.org

 
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