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Snow piles up and up

January colder, snowier than typical

February 3, 2009

HOUGHTON - Copper Country residents who have an intuition that the January snowfall has been greater than for a typical winter and the temperatures colder are correct, but the differences weren't particularly great.

Matt Zika, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Negaunee Township, said snowfall in much of the western Upper Peninsula was more than usual.

"Most areas were a little above normal," he said.

Article Photos

Kurt Hauglie/Daily Mining Gazette
A man walks down Shelden Avenue in Houghton Monday during a heavy snowfall. A band of snow pushed by an easterly wind stalled over the Houghton/Hancock area, dropping as much as 24 inches in six hours. Snowfall amounts were greater than typical in January and temperatures were also colder than typical during the month.

Zika said the weather service has only a few weather spotters in Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties, but most of them reported more than the normal 70 inches of snowfall for the month.

"They're showing 95 to 100 inches of snow that fell in January," he said.

Most of the areas where the weather service has spotters are showing 20 to 30 inches of snow on the ground, Zika said, but some areas, such as northern Houghton County and in Keweenaw County, have more.

"They have over three feet on the ground," he said.

Zika said the snow that has fallen in the Copper Country has come from a series of systems moving east from the upper plains states and Canada.

"Most of it has been lake effect," he said. "It's been a persistent northeasterly flow."

Lake effect snow occurs when cold air moves over Lake Superior, which until now was relatively warmer than those air masses.

Fortunately for those who have to shovel snow or brush it off their vehicles, most of the snow that has fallen this winter has been fluffy and lightweight.

"That's notorious for lake effect snow," he said.

The weather systems coming from Canada, called Alberta Clippers or Canadian Clippers, also affect temperatures, Zika said.

"As a result, the last two months have been well below-normal," he said.

In Houghton, Zika said the typical average for daylight high temperatures and nighttime lows for January is 14.6 degrees. This year, the average was 9.7 degrees.

"It was definitely in the top 10 coldest Januarys," he said. "(But) it's not tremendously abnormal."

Zika said December was also colder than typical, and the last time there were back-to-back colder-than-typical months was 1983.

Because the winters for the last five years have been relatively milder than typical in the U.P., Zika said many people may have the impression this winter is particularly brutal, but it isn't especially bad.

"Once you average this (winter) out over five or 10 years, it's going to be close to normal," he said.

Zika said the ice cover on Lake Superior may be affected by the lower than typical temperatures, also. If the trend continues through February, it may be possible for the lake to completely freeze over, which last happened during the 2002-03 winter.

There was no "January thaw" this winter, which Zika said is unusual but isn't especially abnormal.

The greater than typical snow amounts from January continued into February, at least in the Houghton and Hancock, Zika said, with as much as 24 inches falling in a six-hour period Monday.

A band of snow which settled over the Houghton/Hancock area was pushed by strong winds, Zika said.

"It was an unusual band because the winds came from the east," he said. "It was a good six hours of intense snow."

Most wind patterns and weather systems come from the west, Zika said.

Snowfall amounts directly south and north of Houghton/Hancock Monday were much less, in the single digits.

Zika said the easterly winds picked up so much snow because they passed over Lake Superior, which still has some open water on its east side.

The snow band which brought the heavy snow was an unusual occurrence, Zika said.

"It is rare," he said.

The band of snow even caught forecasters by surprise, Zika said.

"There's no way we would have had confidence to say Houghton and Hancock were going to get five to six inches of snow an hour," he said.

There is reason for hope as far as snowfall and temperatures in early February are concerned, Zika said.

"We may get a break this week," he said. "Temperatures may moderate away from this frigidness," he said.

The skies should clear by the end of the week, Zika said, and temperatures may get to about freezing.

Zika said there may be some more warming and clearing of skies next week, but that doesn't mean the worst is over.

"We can't sound the all-clear, yet," he said.

Kurt Hauglie can be reached at



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