Conor Garrity of the South High School Nordic ski team took advantage of the artificial snow at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis to work out last week.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

White Christmas not in the cards this year

  • Article by: BILL McAULIFFE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 17, 2011 - 11:25 PM

With much of Minnesota facing a brown Christmas, residents are weighing how they feel about the lack of the traditional snowy landscape.

Ski hills are struggling and sleigh rides have become hay rides, but drivers are enjoying dry roads. Weeks of dry and even warm weather have allowed some homeowners to build even more outdoor displays than they normally might.

Going into this weekend, much of the state had only Friday night's dusting of snow on the ground. That should vanish in 40-degree temperatures Sunday. One possible exception might be the southeastern corner, where 2 to 3 inches fell overnight into Saturday.

Brown Christmases are not as rare as they might seem in the Twin Cities. If we get one this year, it will be the second in six years. In 110 years of record-keeping, Christmas has been white in the Twin Cities 72 percent of the time. "White" means at least an inch of snow on the ground -- deep and crisp and even -- at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where 0.3 inch fell Friday night and Saturday morning.

Kadee Crottier, a Twin Cities caroler, has sensed the competing attitudes.

"It makes me a little more wistful, singing, 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas,'" said Crottier, a soprano in group that sings at shopping centers, parties and other events. At the same time, "Let it Snow" always gets a mixed reaction: "Some people are nodding, 'Yes! Yes!' while others are looking at their cars thinking, 'I don't want to have to clean off the windows.'"

Snow removal savings

In Minneapolis, the unusually warm conditions in recent weeks have meant that the city's street maintenance budget, still feeling the effects of last winter, will be only $300,000 short at the end of the fiscal and calendar year, Dec. 31.

"If things had been normal, it might have been $1.3 million," said Mike Kennedy, the city's street maintenance chief.

By this time last year, 16 inches were on the ground, the metro area was in the midst of its snowiest December on record, and residents were dealing with the fourth snow emergency of the season. Under Kennedy's scheme of naming winter storms alphabetically after city streets, crews were already up to Fillmore. So far this year, they've only reached Cecil.

At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, plow drivers statewide logged nearly 100,000 hours of overtime last December alone. This fall they had driven a mere 7,648 through Nov. 30, the last date for which figures are available, and little snow has fallen statewide since then.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, crews have been able to patch cracks and potholes with hot mix asphalt, normally a warm season chore.

"I'm hoping for an average winter," said St. Paul public works director John Maczko, adding that he was being careful not to offend snow lovers. "If 2 inches of snow is a white Christmas, that's enough for me."

"It's a cautious optimism for us, " said MnDOT information officer Jessica Wiens, adding that plow drivers would probably be thankful to spend Christmas with families this year after working the holiday the last two. "There's a lot of winter left. But we're thankful for the opportunity to catch up and have things ready to go."

December temperatures are running more than 2 degrees above normal in the Twin Cities, one reason why 0.38 inches of precipitation Tuesday and Wednesday fell as rain and not as 5 or 6 inches of snow. November was unusually warm and ended the driest autumn on record in the Twin Cities.

In its monthly update Thursday, the national Climate Prediction Center indicated a trend toward above-normal temperatures for Minnesota for January, and no clear direction for precipitation. For January through March, the center is mostly noncommittal on both temperature and precipitation. That is a change from the November update, when the agency was signaling strong chances that December, January and February would be colder and snowier than normal.

Bad news for some

None of the above is good news for snow and ice enthusiasts or winter sports centers, some of which are facing a financial bruising.

In Minneapolis, the Parks and Recreation board shut down the snowmakers this week at Wirth Winter Recreation Area, as well as ice rink-making efforts in parks and on lakes. Spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said it was unlikely any rinks would be ready by Christmas. Cross-country skiers Thursday were confined to a 2-kilometer ribbon of man-made snow at Wirth Park.

At Giants Ridge near Biwabik, only 30 percent of the alpine ski runs were open Thursday, all with manufactured snow. Cross-country skiers were confined to a 2-kilometer loop, also on machined snow. Revenues were down about 15 percent compared to last winter by this time, said general manager Linda Johnson, who was hoping for snow not just at Giants Ridge but across the entire region.

"A lot of times people have to have snow in their back yards to get in the groove," she said. "Depending on the temperatures, people could still be out biking and walking and hiking. We need the cold weather.

"But we want it all," she added. "We want a nice window to make snow before Christmas, and we want it warm so our guests have a wonderful outdoor experience."

Warm is actually OK with Crottier's choral group, too.

"We do outdoor singing. When it's warm, we're more comfortable, and more people stop and listen to us before moving on," she said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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