Late Season Snowfall in Minnesota

photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr
photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr

A week ago today, the landscape in southern Minnesota was snowless. Our lawn was bare – covered only with brown grass (which I convinced myself was most definitely turning green by the hour) and the desiccated leaves of last autumn. I imagined myself getting to work in the garden, planting hardy seeds of kale and spinach. I threw the kids’ snowsuits down the stairs to wash and dry them to put in storage for next fall. As retribution for such thoughts and actions, we received 3.6 inches of snow on Sunday night and more is coming down even as I type. After nearly 30 years here, you’d think I would know better. In Minnesota, you must keep your dreams of spring in check until at least April, possibly May.

In the Twin Cities, the average snowfall for March is 10.2 inches, beating out all months besides December and January. In March of 1951, the Twin Cities received a whopping 40 inches of snow. (Tangent: They shoveled this by hand. No ‘snowblowing’. Although snow throwing machines were invented as early as the 1880s for clearing train tracks, the domestic use ‘walk behind’ machines were only just coming on the market in the early 1950s.) Calling March ‘spring’ here might be tempting fate. March is a month of extreme variability in Minnesota with a record high of 88°F and a record low of -50°F. That’s a 138 degree spread!

I’ve been reading meteorologist Mark Seeley’s informative Minnesota Weather Almanac this week. In this book, Seeley details Minnesota’s worst and most remarkable winter storms. I was surprised how many of them occurred in March. My surprise is probably due to my annual (and naive) belief that winter is over in March – a belief which is perpetually crushed. Do I learn? Of course not, I’m an optimist; we never do.

A few notable late season snow storms:

March 19-20, 1826: Like 1951, March of 1826 brought about 40 inches of snow, including 18 inches on these two days causing snowdrifts of 6 to 15 feet. This snowfall was followed by a further 8 inches in early April. Subsequently, a blast of cold air (4°F on April 10th) arrived further delaying the breakup of ice on the rivers. This sequence of events led to massive flooding carrying away low lying buildings at Fort Snelling and Fort Crawford as well as Chief Little Crow’s village at the site of modern day South Saint Paul. The river ultimately crested at 20 feet above low water.

April 5, 1933: A heavy snowfall struck the north shore, dumping 28 inches of snow in Cook County, a still standing record for 24 hour snowfall in April.

March 15-16, 1941: A blizzard hits western Minnesota. 85 mph winds were reported at Grand Forks and 75 mph winds were reported at Fargo-Moorhead. The wind chill bottomed out at -35°F. Although snowfall from this storm was light, a number of people died from exposure due to the extreme winds and temperatures. Before this storm, Minnesota only had observational weather services, but upset over the lack of warning and the resulting fatalities resulted in forecasting services being added by the National Weather Services.

May 2-3. 1954: Yes, you read that correctly, MAY. A huge storm moves across northern Minnesota. Dropping as much as 10-12 inches of snow across much of the northern half of the state. I would be pissed.

March 14-15, 2002: A storm of mixed precipitation, thunder, and lightning, brought 10-21 inches of snow.

March and April snowfalls aren’t the outliers I’d like the believe they are. They are, in fact, the norm. And while they are often minor interludes between luxuriously (to Minnesotans) sunny days in the mid-40s, they can also be severe, even dangerous. Huge winter storms can even arrive in May (as they did in 1954), but it’s uncommon.

Well, at least we have June, July, and August, because it sometimes snows in September too.

The Vernal Equinox

Equinoxes occur twice a year, once in the spring (the vernal equinox) and once in the fall (the autumnal equinox). On the equinox, the number of hours of day and night are equal over the entire Earth. So, on the equinox northerly Barrow, Alaska (71°N), equatorial Bogota, Colombia (4°N), and Dunedin, New Zealand (45°S) all receive about 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. If we flash back to the most recent solstice (December 21, 2014), we can see how different these times were. On the last winter solstice, Barrow received zero hours (or seconds!) of daylight. Poor Barrow. Bogota received 11 hours and 51 minutes of daylight (daylength varies little throughout the year near the equator). And Dunedin received a pleasant 15 hours and 44 minutes of daylight – the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice being the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So, while there was a great deal of variation between these locales on the solstice (nearly 16 hours from north to south), they all receive about the same amount of daylight on the equinox. 

 The vernal equinox is considered the first day of spring. While first signs of spring may vary based on your locale, this designation makes sense astronomically. The Earth doesn’t orbit the sun in a straight up and down alignment; it is tilted on its axis – this is why we have seasons. From a northern hemisphere perspective, during our winter the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. During our summer, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. On the equinox, the celestial equator (the Earth’s equator projected out in space) passes through the center of sun. Which means, that neither the South nor North Pole are tilted away from the sun, so all parts of the Earth receive the same amount of sunlight. So, the moment before the equinox, the northern hemisphere is still (just barely) tilted away from the sun. The moment after the equinox, the northern hemisphere is now (just barely) tilted toward the sun. Thus, astronomically, the seasons have changed. The equinox marks the beginning of spring and spring will continue until the summer solstice (June 20-21). On the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is tilted the most toward the sun it will get, so we receive the most amount of sunlight on that day. After the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is starting to tilt away from the sun little by little until we reach the next equinox, and then the winter solstice, when we will start to tilt back toward the sun again.

If you are having trouble wrapping your mind around this, I found this video extremely helpful. I posted it here before. It really makes the whole concept much clearer to me. 


 As with the solstices, cultures throughout the world have celebrated the equinoxes for millennia. The Mayans built El Castillo at Chichen Itza around 900 A.D., where on the equinoxes, observers can see a huge shadow depicting the body of a wriggling serpent rise up along the stone wall. 


 A simple equinox celebration:

In much of the world, the new year is celebrated close to the winter solstice. This new beginning is often celebrated by making resolutions. People are filled with intentions of turning over a new leaf and beginning again. To me, this seems out-of-sync with the world around us, however. While sun is gradually returning to the land, we don’t see fresh starts or literal ‘new leaves’ around us (especially in places with cold winters). At the vernal equinox, however, the world is full of new beginnings. The snow is melting, buds may be forming, daffodils and tulips popping up through warming soil, and if not yet – they will be soon. I think this is a more appropriate time to think about starting fresh and new, leaving behind the old and opening yourself to the new.

Consider what has been holding you back or what has been keeping you down. What narrative have you carried with you through the winter that you are ready to let go of? Write it down on a piece of paper and take it outside to burn (safely) on your patio, in your firepit. Let it go; you don’t need to carry it with you any longer. Make room for fresh, new growth.

All Hail the Micro Moon!

Last Night’s Moon by Will C. Fry via Flickr

On Thursday, March 5, 2015 the full moon will be present in Earth’s sky. This month’s full moon is a “micro moon”. While the term  “super moon” seems to be widely recognized, its inverse, the micro moon, is less well known. The micro moon occurs once each year, though not always in March. Micro moon refers to a full moon that occurs when the moon is at its farthest point in its orbit from the Earth (known as apogee). The super moon is the opposite – a full moon that occurs when the moon is closest to the Earth (known as perigee). The difference is noticeable to the human eye, though is takes a keen one. Every year the mini moon returns one month and eighteen days later than the previous year. So next year, the micro moon will occur on April 22nd, in 2017 on June 9th, and so on.

March’s full moon has a number of names ascribed to it by the various Native tribes of the Americas. One name is the Full Sap Moon. March’s warmer weather causes sap to begin to run once again in the trees in March. Many Native tribes harvested maple sap each spring, including Minnesota’s Anishnabeg (Ojibway). The March full moon is likewise known as the Sugar Moon, because most of the tribes that collected maple syrup boiled it down until it crystallized, becoming sugar, making it much easier to transport.

From a 1896 European observer:

The season of sugar making came when the first crow appeared. This happened about the beginning or middle of March, while there was yet snow on the ground. This period of the season was looked forward to with great interest, and, as among the Minnesota Ojibwa today, became a holiday for everybody. Each female head of a household had her own sugar hut, built in a locality abounding in maple trees which might or might not have been convenient to her camp, but which was the place always resorted to by her, and claimed by right of descent through her mother’s family and totem. (Prentice, 26)

The March full moon is also the Snow Crust Moon, so called because of the crusty nature of March’s snow – resulting from daylight snow melt, followed by the nighttime freeze. The Algonquins of New England called the March full moon the Full Worm Moon, because in March the ground would thaw and the worms would wiggle out once again.

To me, these names all signal a recognition of the changing seasons that occur at this time of year. While in the northern part of the country, snow is still on the ground and no green is yet in sight, life is returning to the barren winter landscape – the sap is flowing, the worms squirming, and the character of the snow is shifting. Here in Minnesota, with a high temperature of 13 degrees F today, it doesn’t feel much like spring. Walking in the woods, I don’t see much sign of it at all. I am sure that the people who walked this land long before I did were much keener observers of the natural world, though. The one obvious sign of spring is the increase in daylight, of course. Today, we received 11 hours and 21 minutes of daylight, a significant increase over the meager 8 hours and 46 minutes we received back in December on the winter solstice. What signs of spring are you seeing where you live? What would your local March full moon be called?