Day 1 of autumn brings the countdown to winter

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2011 - 8:51 PM

In the forecast: Mild fall, cold winter. (But nothing like last year's monster.)

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Maple leaves were turning along W. Calhoun Parkway in Minneapolis. “Our autumns are becoming longer and milder,” meteorologist Paul Douglas said.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Autumn begins just after 4 a.m. Friday -- proof again of just how short Minnesota summers can seem.

"It came up awfully fast," said Tim Lawrence, 34, a Minneapolis real estate broker who was working on his laptop Wednesday morning at Minnehaha Coffee in south Minneapolis. "I'm ready for it to be a little cooler, but I could have used a couple more weeks of summer."

We won't get that, but the national Climate Prediction Center (CPC) is giving October a strong chance of being warmer than normal, at least across the southern half of Minnesota. Telvent Meteorology, a private forecasting firm based in Burnsville, is going with a warmer as well as drier-than-normal October -- and that's using the recently adjusted "new normals" that themselves are warmer than the old ones, said lead meteorologist Tom Skinner.

"Our autumns are becoming longer and milder," said meteorologist Paul Douglas. "The last 10 Novembers were warm enough to play golf in the Twin Cities."

Of course, autumn is often just a pleasing disguise for what follows: namely, winter -- proof again of just how short a Minnesota year can seem.

"I love autumn. It's the most beautiful time of year," said Carol Oosterhuis, another Minnehaha Coffee customer. "But after last winter, it's hard to see winter coming."

Autumn 2010 saw 38.6 inches of snow fall in the Twin Cities, leading into the snowiest December ever in the Twin Cities, record numbers of snow emergencies in St. Paul (nine) and Minneapolis (eight), the fourth-snowiest winter on record (86.6 inches), two top-15 individual snowfalls and, in St. Cloud, 130 straight days with at least an inch of snow on the ground.

"It really wasn't that cold, but it was depressing staring at the snow," said St. Cloud State University Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Prof. Bob Weisman.

La Niña is back

Weisman and other atmosphere-watchers are noting conditions similar to last year's taking shape. La Niña, which often brings cooler-than-normal conditions to the northern United States, is back in place, as is a particular phase of something called the North Atlantic Oscillation, which teamed with La Niña last winter to create difficult conditions across the Midwest and eastern United States.

White Bear Lake meteorologist Frank Watson is predicting a milder-than-normal fall, followed by a colder-than-normal "meteorological winter" -- December, January and February. He and Telvent's Skinner are also leaning toward above-normal snowfall. The CPC foresees a colder-than-normal winter but is noncommittal on precipitation.

But the smart money says that colder-than-normal is unlikely to translate into a repeat of the epic winter of 2010-11. Ed O'Lenic, senior meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., said that a second La Niña in successive years tends to be weaker than the first. Tom Hultquist, chief science offer for the Twin Cities office of the National Weather Service, said he'd simply hesitate to predict a winter as extreme as the last.

Telvent's Skinner looked back at the six winters since 1891 that dumped more than 80 inches of snow on the Twin Cities and found that none was followed by another winter with that much snow. Three were followed by a winter with 70 or more inches, but three others by winters with snow in the 30-inch range. Normal for the Twin Cities is now 54 inches.

Of course, there are Minnesotans who relish the darker, colder half of the year that begins Friday, especially with the promise of brilliant fall color this year and thoughts of hot soups, apples, crackling fires and even bulky clothes.

"The best part of Minnesota is autumn and fall," said John Colby of Edina, who was having a new battery installed in his SUV in Richfield on Wednesday.

"Everybody likes to complain about the Minnesota winter," Colby, a skier, added, "but the thing to do is embrace it."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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