GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There’s a common thread in some of the responses I’ve seen to coverage of this winter’s weather, and it seems to be based on an incorrect assumption by longtime, cold-hardened residents of West Michigan.
Here’s an example from a Facebook post asking for a new way to describe Tuesday morning’s near-zero temperatures:
- “its (sic) just pure Michigan winter.”
- “How about “Winter Time in Michigan…”
- “I have an IDEA, why don’t we call it “WINTER”?”
There seems to be a significant faction that insists that the weather we’ve seen this season is simply par for the course, and that treating it as an unusual event is simply hype for the sake of media coverage.
I’m the first to admit that many in West Michigan are too quick to get worked up over what amounts to very normal doses of cold and snow in the winter months. And a lot of the discussion is based on a very real fact — many of today’s adults grew up in what was a very cold and snowy period in the region’s history. Records indicate that the 1960s and 70s featured a number of the Grand Rapids area’s highest snow totals in history, along with very cold winters. Comparatively, recent history has been fairly mild, with each of the last four seasons being characterized by snowfall numbers that would be considered average at best. Temperatures have also been on an upward trend in the winter months.
Snowfall, as we know, can be very fickle, especially here in the world of lake-effect snow. It’s noteworthy that Detroit is likely to mark its snowiest January on record this month; meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, we haven’t even cracked the top 30 yet.
So, how can we compare this winter with those of the past? In an earlier examination of our first Arctic blast, I demonstrated how we were seeing some of the coldest air since at least 1999. Let’s revisit some similar data using a threshold that allows for a bit of a broader look over past winters. The Midwestern Regional Climate Center offers good data for Grand Rapids going back about 50 years, to 1964.
The coldest that the average high gets over the course of a winter in Grand Rapids is 30°. So we’ll look at the number of days where the high fails to reach 20°; that is, weather that is ten degrees or more colder than average.
So far this season, we’ve seen ten such days in Grand Rapids. Today will make eleven, and based on the current 7 Day Forecast, we’ll have seen at least 15 total by the end of the month. By comparison, here are the numbers of sub-20° highs that Grand Rapids has had by the end of January in each of the last ten seasons — the total number for the whole winter is in parentheses:
- 2012-13: 4 (6)
- 2011-12: 1 (1)
- 2010-11: 4 (6)
- 2009-10: 1 (1)
- 2008-09: 8 (9)
- 2007-08: 4 (6)
- 2006-07: 1 (9)
- 2005-06: 0 (1)
- 2004-05: 11 (11)
- 2003-04: 10 (11)
As you can see, we’re blowing away each of the last ten years in terms of the number of under-20° days in West Michigan. In fact, in the last 20 years, only 2002-03 (17) and 1993-94 (24) have seen more of these cold days in Grand Rapids. 1993-94 should be recognized as one of the coldest winters on record, with the highest number of under-20° days in the last 50 years, as well as holding the mark for the coldest temperature posted in Grand Rapids since 1900 — -22° on January 19, 1994.
And for those who like to compare every winter to the memorable ones in the 1970s, here are the numbers for under-20° days in each of those seasons:
- 1970-71: 12
- 1971-72: 15
- 1972-73: 7
- 1973-74: 7
- 1974-75: 6
- 1975-76: 7
- 1976-77: 21
- 1977-78: 8
- 1978-79: 21
- 1979-80: 4
In other words, this winter so far is nearly as cold as the worst that most of us can remember. I know that these numbers won’t convince everyone, and I don’t want to play into the popular mindset that every event is the “biggest” or “worst” that we’ve ever seen. But it’s OK to step back and appreciate this winter’s weather for what it is — some of the coldest West Michigan has seen in a very long time.
Here is the full data set, courtesy of the Midwest Regional Climate Center:
|Threshold Search for High Temperature|
|GRAND RAPIDS INTL AP (MI)|
|Years: 1964 to 2014|
|Conditions are: High Temperature (F) less than 20|