Spring hasn't sprung yet

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 11:40 PM

Don't put away that snowblower: March is, on average, one of our snowiest months.

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The University of Minnesota women’s rowing team practiced on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on Thursday. Last year the team wasn’t able to practice on the water until April.

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So your neighbors didn't shovel the recent snow, thinking (correctly) that it would melt.

Yet, beneath that new indifference to winter -- forged by landmark warmth and dryness -- there still lies that dread, well-known to Minnesotans, of the Big, Wet One to come, the tree-snapping dump of heavy snow that, in the end, makes any winter seem inescapable. Caveat crocus.

"People who have survived Minnesota winters know that if you declare spring too soon, you could be dead," said Mario Macaruso, cafe manager at the Midtown Freewheel bicycle shop and cafe along the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. "In Minnesota, the attitude is that you're gonna pay, dearly."

This winter will end as one of the warmest since 1877-78, when Minnesota farmers plowed until December and planted in February, honeybees puzzled about and ice cleared from Lake Minnetonka and Lake Osakis on the earliest dates ever recorded. It could also be the second-least snowy in records going back to 1891.

But those marks are for "meteorological" winter, which runs from December through February.

"March is one of our snowiest months," said John Maczko, St. Paul city engineer. "It's been very nice to have weather like this. But we're not out of the woods yet. When I was growing up, we had pretty good snowfalls in March and even April."

Across St. Paul, construction of the new light-rail line made up for some lost time through the winter, and city street workers have gotten a head start on spring chores, sweeping alleys and some streets, Maczko said. There have been no snow emergencies, but plow blades are still on the trucks. Same for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Crews have been patching potholes, cutting brush and doing other maintenance, but many of those workers double as snowplow drivers when needed.

"We tend to stay pretty focused on snow and ice until well into April," said spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.

You don't have to go too far back to see why: We had 20 inches of snow in March 2006 and nearly as much a couple of years later. And last winter, of course, was the fourth-snowiest on record, even if March wasn't overwhelming.

St. Paul resident Richard Hanson, who hasn't owned a car in 28 years and gets around by foot or by bus, said he's noticed that many neighbors seem to be clearing their walks less thoroughly than they did last winter. "I think they're basically taking a year off," said Hanson.

In Minneapolis, Macaruso said this winter has been surprisingly good for the bike shop, bringing out bicyclists who normally hang their bikes in the garage from November until April.

"Sunny days, it's like the beach down here," he said. "All the old-school guys, they're saying, 'This isn't winter!' But for a lot of other people who've decided this winter they're going to get out and do it, it's been really encouraging."

Still, mindful of declaring spring too soon, Macaruso said there's treacherous weather ahead. If not deep snow and cold, there could be thawing and freezing, leaving unpredictable ice patches on trails and roads.

"All the people I know, they leave their studded tires on until the average temperature is above freezing," he said.

In the Twin Cities, the average nighttime low doesn't rise above that point until early April.

Through Thursday, this winter also ranked as the second-least-snowy since 1891, but only 7.3 inches of snow would knock it out of the top 10. The forecast indicates small chances of snow early next week.

On Tuesday, meteorologist Paul Douglas noted that some weather models were suggesting a prodigious snowstorm by the end of next week. But the next day, he said the picture had changed. "The models giveth, and they taketh away," he said. With drought now the predominant factor in the models, the only snow in the long-range forecast might be 1 to 3 inches toward the end of the month, Douglas added.

March brings an average of 10.2 inches of snow to the Twin Cities, and April another 2.5. Last year, 8.2 inches fell in March and 1.9 in April. But that was then. Douglas said the atmospheric dynamics that surprised most experts, bringing a warm, dry winter to the northern United States, remain in place.

"I still think we'll get some snow in March," he said.

Jeff Sawdy of Brooklyn Center is counting on it. He bought a new snowblower at the beginning of the season -- to complement his other, larger snowblower, two push blades, three shovels and a push broom -- and has used it twice.

But he's not ready to put it in storage.

"This is Minnesota," Sawdy said. "Anything can happen."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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