It might be only the first day of winter, but the Twin Cities area faces an already familiar round of slow-and-go traffic, fender-benders and snow emergencies Tuesday.
The sixth major winter storm to visit the region -- all of them late autumn storms, technically -- was expected to leave as much as 5 to 7 inches of new snow across the region before subsiding Tuesday morning. Another round of snow is forecast for Thursday.
Although Tuesday's winter solstice signals winter's official start, St. Paul already has called its sixth snow emergency of the season and Minneapolis its fifth. Minneapolis has exceeded its calendar-year 2010 snow removal budget by several million dollars, said Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair.
This week's snowfall is almost certain to make the autumn of 2010 the third-snowiest on record in the Twin Cities, and December the snowiest ever.
A white Christmas? Slam-dunk, statewide. Schools across the state have had several snow days, late starts and early closings already, and as network TV viewers are well aware after watching Monday's Vikings-Bears game, the Metrodome's roof collapsed under the weight of snow Dec. 12.
"We're in for a long, snowy winter. We just need to get used to it," said University of Minnesota Extension meteorologist Mark Seeley. "I don't want to be a wet rag, but I'm trying to be realistic. And, actually, I hope I'm wrong."
The stars are aligned for it. La Niña, a cooling of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that is linked to cold winters on the distant Northern Plains, is in full force. Seeley noted that two other such phenomena -- the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation, both related to low air pressure -- are also raising the likelihood of cold, snowy weather across the region.
Recently the National Climatic Data Center said that a snowier-than-average January, February and March are likely for the northern half of Minnesota, particularly in later winter. The agency has indicated for several months a strong tendency toward lower-than-normal temperatures statewide for the period.
Those factors, coinciding with minimal day length, mean that the enormous snow piles lining streets and sidewalks aren't going anywhere soon. Because snow reflects sunlight instead of absorbing it, sunlight needs to be intense to melt it. And because snow cools the lowest layers of air, it not only resists thawing but can create more snow.
"Like drought begets drought, snow begets snow," Seeley said. "This snow we've got is going to be around for a good long time. We're just going to add to it."
The latest dump began at mid-day Monday and by 2 p.m. every major corridor began to choke with congestion. Stop-and-go traffic continued past 7 p.m. as motorists navigated low visibility and accumulating snow, said Brian Kary, freeway operations engineer with the Regional Transportation Management Center.
"It's pretty bad out there," he said.
Falling at 1 to 2 inches an hour, the snow complicated not only the afternoon and evening commute but made it a slow slog for Vikings fans as they headed to the TCF stadium.
"This is terrible for everything; it's awful weather," said Paul Ridgeway, a consultant who oversaw traffic management for six NFL Super Bowls, including the 1992 game at the Metrodome.
The good news was that the slow-going traffic reduced the number of spinouts, Kary said. Meteorologist Chris Franks with the National Weather Service expected the storm to wind down by late evening, with only a couple tenths of an inch falling overnight, he said.
But all this snow is good news in some quarters.
Bruce Tuckner, co-owner of Century Power Sports, a snowmobile and snowblower dealer in Stillwater, has sold 150 snowblowers so far this season, triple the normal pace. A poor economy has led manufacturers to cut back on snowmobile production, Tuckner said. But that means both new and used sleds are hard to find, and his parts business is booming.
"It's good for anybody in this business right now. It's something we haven't seen for a long time," Tuckner said. "Granted it's kind of a pain, but people are having fun in it again. It's like: 'Winter's here!' And that's what Minnesota's all about."
There's more good news for Tuckner coming later this week as local meteorologists are watching another system that could bring 2 to 4 inches of snow to Minnesota Thursday. But much of that seems to be headed to the area south of the metro area, closer to the Minnesota-Iowa border, Kary said.
Calm -- at least weatherwise -- should settle in for Christmas Day. A few flurries may be sighted Christmas Eve, he said. And temperatures may drop a bit to the upper teens. "But we're expecting quiet weather for Christmas," Franks said.
With winter here, spring isn't far behind. Hydrologists already are on spring flood alert. Up to 24 inches or snow and more lay across southern Minnesota on Monday (14 inches through Sunday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport), holding 2 to 4 inches of water on top of frozen, impervious ground. That water will run off directly into rivers and streams.
"It's the same sheet of music as the last three years in a row, just a different key," said Scott Dummer, lead hydrologist at the North Central River Forecast Center, based in Chanhassen, which tracks river behavior in nine states and two Canadian provinces. "There's a lot of winter ahead of us, and a lot of spring ahead of us. But you can count on spring flooding."
Staff Writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646