John was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. As a teenager, his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and later to a small town in northeast Iowa. John traces his early interest in weather to the difference in climate between Alabama and Wisconsin. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in meteorology. Like any meteorologist, John is intrigued by extremes of weather, especially arctic air outbreaks and winter storms. John has been known to say he prefers his summers to be hot but in winter, he prefers the cold. When away from work, John enjoys long-distance running and reading. John has been a meteorologist at WDAY since May of 1985.
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The National Weather Service winter outlook, released Thursday, Oct. 19, indicates a likelihood of a colder than average and snowier than average winter across North Dakota and northern Minnesota. But there is no reason to panic about a brutal winter just yet. A weather outlook for an entire season is not the same as a seven-day forecast. Physics models are of no use. Instead, forecasters look at large-scale anomalies around the world and compare results from past winters to create analogs. The result is a set of probabilities.
For the second time this month, the air Wednesday, Oct. 18, was filled with tiny, feathery floaters. The general consensus is that the fuzzy fliers were cattail seeds, but many people were alarmed because they had not seen so many cattail seeds before. Some suggested the seed showers were another sign of climate change. North Dakota has a lot of wetlands and both times the fuzzies have filled the air, it has been with a strong west wind. Instead of jumping to a heavy conclusion when confronted with then unknown, it might be better to look for a simpler, more elegant explanation.
Despite it being a visual harbinger, there is a certain thrill in seeing a great flock of geese flying south. If a sign of another approaching winter causes depressing thoughts, consider that there are a great many birds that do not choose to migrate south in the fall.
"It's so weird that the Red River flows north," a friend remarked recently. I hastened to reply that the Red River flows downhill more than any other direction. In fact, all rivers flow downhill or not at all. The reason that our northward-flowing river seems weird is that rivers in the central and eastern U.S. are mostly part of the Missouri-Mississippi river system which drains southward to the Gulf of Mexico. That river system cannot drain any other direction because those directions are not downhill.
It is that time of year when the winter forecasts start coming out. From the Old Farmer's Almanac to Accuweather, everybody is checking everything from Siberian snow to La Niña to pig bladders to determine what the winter will bring. Strange, but nobody talks much about wooly bear caterpillars, anymore. That was a popular predictor back in the 1970s. The fact is, nobody has a very good history at long-term prediction. Physics models have no value at all beyond a few weeks. Seasonal outlooks are based on large-scale weather anomalies around the world.
The hottest accepted recorded temperature on Earth is 134 degrees in Death Valley, California, in 1934. The coldest is 128.6 degrees below zero at the Russian research station in Vostok, Antarctica. But these are "recorded" instrument data. The vast majority of locations on the planet are without a thermometer. So until recently, we could only guess the actual hot and cold potential for our planet.
On Oct. 15-16, 1880, one of the earliest blizzards ever known in our region struck eastern South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa with heavy snow, wind gusts over 60 mph and drifts over 15 feet high. That storm was made famous by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her book "The Long Winter" as the October Blizzard. Since that storm more than 125 years ago, significant October snows have been rare. The Halloween Blizzard of 1991 covered much of Minnesota in deep snow, but most of that storm technically occurred on Nov. 1, rather than on Halloween.
We are approaching the darkest time of the year. The period from late October through late December is that time of year when the days are growing shorter and shorter. At the same time, this is also the cloudiest time of the year. When we do get a sunny day, the sun remains low in the southern sky, creating long shadows even at high noon, and giving the appearance of morning or evening all day long.
October snowfall is not completely uncommon in our region, but it happens a lot more frequently in western North Dakota than here. The higher elevation of western North Dakota is a part of the reason for this but even more important is the east-to-west, upward slope of the land across the state. When a low-pressure system moves across the northern Plains, it develops an east-to-west wind field across North Dakota. Air moving across the state goes from an elevation of 899 feet above sea-level in Fargo to 2,959 feet in Bowman.
Winter is slowly approaching and that means cold weather, obviously. But "cold" is a relative term. Two benchmark temperatures are zero degrees and 20 below zero. Over the entire period of record (dating back to 1881), the frequency of these two benchmark temperatures has been declining. During the first 30 years of record (1881-1910), zero happened about 60 nights a year and 20 below about 15 nights a year. Over the last 30 years (1987-2016), zero has happened only about 40 nights a year and 20 below about six times a year, on average.