How cold WAS it?

The line ‘How cold WAS it?’ has been a lead-in for stand-up comics for years; as in, “It was so cold politicians had their hands in their own pockets…” or “It was so cold the mice were playing ice hockey in the toilet bowl…” Like everyone, I’ve heard lots of discussion these days about just how cold this winter has been. We certainly know that this winter bucks a recent trend of relatively warm winters in the Midwest over the past two decades.
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However a popular notion around these parts, especially among old-timers, is that “this is the way winters used to be…” I’m a relative newcomer to Michigan, currently experiencing my 15th winter here. This is, by far, the coldest winter since I’ve lived here. But could this simply reflect my lack of perspective as a newbie? To gain a little insight, I pulled the long-term weather data for Lansing, which dates back to the 1880’s. I compared the daily minimum temperatures from this winter with the long-term average low temperatures and daily record lows.

low temps 2013-14

The results will come as no surprise to anyone who lives east of the Rockies. It’s been cold. How cold WAS it? Certainly well below average, especially since the Holidays. As of yesterday, 41 of the last 52 daily lows have been below average and we have been below 0 deg. F 19 times. Despite the prolonged cold, we have not broken any daily records although locations near here have.

So, are the old timers right? Are we just getting a glimpse of the way things used to be back in the day? The data suggest they are probably experiencing a bit of selective memory. If you’ve lived here long enough you’ve seen a few winters this cold and even colder. But this January will go down as one of the 10 coldest (at least) on record, so the idea that winter’s weather is like the ‘old normal’ is a bit of a stretch.

2 thoughts on “How cold WAS it?

  1. Bert, IMO folks remember the extremes and not the average weather. I can tell you of many years when we had lots of snow but the so-called “normal” winters don’t stick in memory. And summers when it was hotter than heck are memorable too, but not as much as the coldest winters here in VA. So statistics are a much better measure of what the weather has been doing over generations than memory. But to me, this winter seems more like those we had when I was much younger… LOL!

  2. I partially disagree with your interpretation of the judgement of “old timers” . Most growers are more concerned about the actual coldest points of winter and this is how we judge a “test winter”- it is also crucial to how we evaluate horticultural zones. Last winter was not extreme in this way in most affected regions.

    Average temperature is another consideration, and one unique feature of the last winter was the lack of long thaws which obviously drove down the avg. temp. For a grower this can be a good thing because fewer plants will be killed by cold temps that often follow a dehardening thaw.

    If you work outside you tend to be very mindful of the especially cold days and probably not so much average temperatures during the winter. Wind would also be a part of this “calculation”.

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