Shades of gray: the area in front of, behind, and on either side of any curious groundhog. Shadows require sun.
The lore around Groundhog Day is that if such rodent peeks from its burrow and sees no shadow, spring will come early. If it’s sunny enough to make a shadow, winter will stick around for six more weeks. Well, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow, so spring is on its way.
Or is it?
Around here, winter always lasts six more weeks — at least! — so any elation about a hasty spring is a waste of mirth, and tempered by the fact that Groundhog Day was just another gloomy day in a string of gloomy days.
Shades of gray: slush along a curb, grimy windshields, the sky at 9 a.m.
Just to confirm your suspicions: December was the cloudiest December since such records were first kept in 1962.
January is yet to be analyzed, but what do you want to bet we’ll have another winner? (Loser?)
“It’s been a wimpy winter so far,” said Pete Boulay, climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “It started really late, and there just hasn’t been much weather we’d call winter.”
The recent subzero snap felt familiar but was followed by thawing temps. Snowfall has been stingy. The easiest and surest forecast has been for gray skies.
Shades of gray: fenderbergs on cars, vapor from a heating plant, the sky at noon.
The DNR compiles winter data in its slightly tongue-in-cheek Winter Misery Index, which assigns points by a day’s temperature and snowfall to weigh the relative severity of a winter. Misery is weighted in favor of subzero cold and heavy snow.
Here’s the catch: Most subzero days are linked with sunny skies, so the body hurts, but the mind rejoices.
Cloud cover makes for milder temperatures, so the body catches a break, but the mind reels.
Which misery is more miserable? Discuss.
“We have 21 points so far,” Boulay said last week, noting that most have come from low temps (15) than from deep snow (6), as measured at Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport. Many folks, of course, would love to frolic in some decently deep drifts.
Last winter tallied 55 points, just enough for it to be considered “moderate.” Again, most points were for cold, given that we had the least amount of snow since 1981, according to the index’s website, dnr.state.mn.us/climate/journal/winter_misery_index.html.
Shades of gray: a trampled glove, clouds of car exhaust, the sky at 4 p.m.
Still, we’ve already scored more misery points than the lowest scoring winter of 2011-12, which had a measly 16. But consider: The winter of 2013-14 scored a whopping 207 points, making it the ninth most severe on record, based on the index.
In other words, anything could happen.
“You never know,” Boulay said. “It’s winter in Minnesota. We could have a big storm or absolutely nothing. Both things are very possible.”
As to the stretch of cloudy days, defined by the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth, look to the El Niño weather pattern.
Unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean is fostering higher than average temps across the northern U.S. It’s difficult to predict when that pattern will shift, so for now, we have shades of gray.
When it comes to groundhogs predicting the weather, la marmota has nothing on El Niño.