Meteorologists say winters may be warmer, snowier. What does Saint Paul do to prepare?

Heavy snowfall in the Midwest this season has stranded travelers, narrowed roads, forced St. Paul and Minneapolis to institute unilateral parking bans and generally made a slush and ice slush out of travel.

Experts say this is the climate future, though not every year.

“Our winter precipitation is up,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior state climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We have a year with a lot of precipitation and above average average temperatures. Even if this trend continues, we will still have some old-fashioned winters – perhaps not as often as before.”

In other words, Blumenfeld said, get ready for wetter and heavier snow in future years than, say, 30 or 40 years ago, including some potential record holders like the current one, interspersed with some winters like no other .

“Is this going to be the new normal? Winters like this will probably become more and more common, more and more normal,” he said. “Maybe instead of once a decade, it will be two or three times a decade.”

80 inches of snow so far this year

With 80 inches of snow in the Twin Cities as of Monday, the season was already in the books as the eighth snowiest on record, and that was before fresh snow began falling Thursday.

In a state where weather patterns are anything but variable, experts admit that forecasting the coming winter weather is an inexact science.

Still, engineers and climatologists say Minnesota’s experience with snow and extreme weather over the past decade should be a wake-up call for city planners and those in public works departments.

Snowfall totals may be higher in many, but not all, future winters because of moisture trapped in the atmosphere, experts say. And as the snow piles up, melts into road cracks and refreezes overnight, infrastructure suffers. Drivers in the Twin Cities have already gotten an early taste of the bad pothole season ahead. Experts say to expect more bad pothole seasons.

“Cities of the future should plan and budget for this,” said Manik Barman, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “Plan more preventive maintenance. If we wait until the road is no longer drivable, then it is a huge cost. If we do it in advance, it’s a lot less.”

Saint Paul looks to the next 20 years

In St. Paul, the mayor’s office is in the early stages of setting up an internal task force to study how to prepare the city’s streets for the coming winters.

The mayor of St. Paul, Melvin Carter, has already proposed — with a majority of the city council’s blessing — tripling the local sales tax to 1.5 percent to raise nearly $1 billion over the next 20 years, nearly $750,000 of which will be dedicate to the reconstruction of 25 dollars. – collector streets with pits and arteries.

Among other considerations, the city will likely take a close look at the hiring of snow plow drivers, ticketing during snow emergencies and adequate supplies of sand, road salt and other types of chemical street treatments. The city, which averages about four snow emergencies each winter, has called seven emergencies since Thursday, as well as a one-way parking ban that runs through April 15.

“Future winters are going to look more like this winter than they did 25 years ago,” said the director of public works in St. Paul, Sean Kershaw. “Whether people agree with climate change or not, winters are changing – they’ve gotten warmer, more temperature swings and, for Minnesotans, more moisture in the winter. We have to be ready.”

Matt Saam, director of public works for the city of Apple Valley — which saw about 8 inches of snow in a winter storm on Feb. 23 — said the city has already used nearly double the average amount of salt over the past four seasons and salt is more expensive than ever. Overtime spending in his department was also up 18 percent from previous seasons.

Apple Valley has sent crews to plow or de-ice roads at least 47 times this winter, up 34 percent from the recent average.

“I don’t think we’re at a point yet where we can say this winter is the new normal,” Saam said in an email. “If we start to see a repeat of this winter over the next few years, maybe we’ll be in a different situation.”

Experts say it’s not just winters that are evolving. Heavy snowfall in the winter of 2018-2019 led to widespread flooding for Mississippi River communities a few months later. This was followed in 2022 by historically low river levels that paralyzed boats and barges around the world. In addition to the immediate impact on ordinary residents and industry, heat waves, droughts and coastal flooding take a toll on city budgets.

A 2021 report from consultants McKinsey and Company described 15 ways cities are adapting to changing weather patterns, from nature-based solutions—such as planting trees to provide shade and reduce erosion—to upgrading infrastructure, which can be prohibitively expensive.

The report noted that vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, low-income communities and people with disabilities may be at greater risk in a climate-related emergency.

A wetter winter

Given Minnesota’s warm winters, which are already an average of 5 degrees warmer than in 1970, a common assumption might be that the Twin Cities would have less and less snow and that it would melt more and more. faster and faster. Instead, the metro area is dealing with near-record snowfall this season, heavy accumulation and melt that freezes into ice overnight, making even a walk on the front steps difficult.

Blumenfeld works and lives in St. Paul and sees firsthand the vagaries of the Minnesota winter. This one, he admits, was a bummer.

“Our street was hit really hard by the snow and ice,” Blumenfeld said on March 9, the day before the capital’s one-way parking ban went into effect. “I see. It’s personal.”

He and other experts say that globally, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor trap heat in our atmosphere, which in turn traps moisture. The most dramatic temperature increases occur at night and in cold northern regions like Minnesota, where an unusually warm winter can also mean a wetter winter.

“Most of the snow we’ve had this winter has been wetter than what we see in a typical winter — really slushy,” Blumenfeld said. “We also had an unusual number of days where it rained, or just rained.”

“There is no very clear answer”

For Minnesota, the extra moisture and humidity has meant more frequent heavy snow, experts say, and periods of sleet or rain that turn to ice overnight.

“While our winters are undoubtedly getting warmer on average, they are also showing more variability in temperature and precipitation patterns,” said Jason Furtado, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology. , in an email.

“That means increased risks of extreme winter storms,” ​​Furtado added. “With warmer winters comes the ability of the atmosphere to hold more moisture that can be converted into precipitation during storms. In northern areas like where you are in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the winters are still cold enough for freezing precipitation and with a ‘wrinkled’ atmosphere that means the potential for heavy snow and even sleet/freezing rain.”

Despite a predictable increase in wet and slushy snow, experts say it’s hard to forecast typical water ratios and snow density in the future. Dry, powdery snow perfect for skiing, sledding and other winter sports is not necessarily a thing of the past. Snow conditions are influenced by several variables, including moisture near the ground.

“There’s not a very clear answer to that,” Furtado said. “The type of snow that falls is a function of the temperature and humidity in the atmosphere associated with a storm. … There is no clear evidence of trends in the types of snowfall in the northern US”

Pie slices

As part of the variability, climatologists say some winters will still feel like the status quo of years past.

Imagine all the possible winter scenarios put together forming a pie, Blumenfeld said. A slice of pie might be labeled “wet and snowy.” Another might be labeled “cooler than average.” Another might be labeled “almost no snow at all.”

As weather patterns change, so-called “heavy snow” and “warmer than average” slices are becoming larger — as in, more frequent — but they haven’t completely eliminated the other possible scenarios.

“We’re still going to have winters where it doesn’t snow very much at all,” Blumenfeld said. “The slice of the pie that is a winter like this is getting bigger and bigger. There are other slices in that pie.”

Temperatures this season have been about average since 1991, but are still 5 degrees above where Minnesota winters were before 1970, when climatologists noticed an increase. At that rate, Blumenfeld said winter temperatures will rise another 5 degrees by 2070, for a total increase of 10 degrees over the century.

And that’s an average. Some places in Minnesota — like International Falls, which calls itself the “Icebox of the Nation” — have already seen winter temperatures soar each January compared to the 1950s and ’60s. The very next month, temperatures drop again.

“February … showed almost no warming trend,” Blumenfeld said. “On average, our winters have gotten warmer and that will continue. Even though we expect more warming in the future, we still have all those normal ups and downs that have been part of Minnesota’s climate forever and will continue to be part of Minnesota weather for the foreseeable future.”

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