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Winter winds in Minnesota set records – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH – Wind has been blowing across Minnesota in recent winters like it hasn’t in at least half a century, part of a recent gust trend that climatologists and meteorologists can’t fully explain.

December through February was the second windiest weather winter in Duluth, as measured by the number of days with high gusts, second only to the winter of 2019-20, said Kenny Blumenfeld of the Minnesota State Bureau of Climatology.

In Duluth, winds blew 30 mph or higher on 40 days during those three months this winter. The last few years have been the windiest on record by far.

“All of 2021 was also gusty, with 133 of those 30-mph gust days, behind 2020, which had 134 of those days,” Blumenfeld noted.

Northerners got the wind chill factor while ice fishing, skiing on ski lifts and just walking their dogs. Combined with cooler than normal temperatures since January, the winds made the winter seem even more brutal.

Accurate and comparable wind data only goes back to 1973, Blumenfeld noted, when airports standardized where they took wind measurements, so it’s not clear whether our ancestors experienced gustier weather.

surfer

A wind surfer catches a Lake Superior wave as winds gust to 30 mph and higher in Duluth. The number of days with gusty winds has increased rapidly in recent years in Minnesota.

Steve Kuchera / 2021 Archive / Duluth News Tribune

Windiest winter in Twin Cities, St. Cloud

It’s not just a Duluth phenomenon. In the Twin Cities, winds blew at 30 mph or higher on 46 days this winter, breaking the previous record of 32 gusty days. That means more than half of winter days saw wind gusts of more than 30 mph. The 50-year average is only 13 days per winter.

St. Cloud had 29 days with 30-mph gusts during the meteorological winter, compared to a previous record of 22 days and the long-term average of just under nine days.

Something has happened since 2011, the start of much gustier times in Minnesota, with annual 30-mph gust days increasing dramatically from previous levels. Like Duluth, 2020 was also the most gusty full year in southern Minnesota, with 168 days of 30 mph gusts in the Twin Cities and 114 in St. Cloud.

gusty_winter_21-22.jpg

The number of days with wind gusts of 30 mph or higher has increased rapidly in Minnesota since about 2011, but especially so in recent years.

Contributed / Minnesota State Bureau of Climatology

The trend has been even more pronounced since 2019.

Wind, of course, is the movement of air across the landscape, usually between areas of contrasting temperature and/or barometric pressure. Weather fronts or weather systems that often bring weather changes also often bring windier conditions, and this winter has seen many fronts pass.

“We don’t know exactly why, but it’s definitely associated, at least partially, with changes in temperature (with) frontal passages,” Blumenfeld said.

But more weather fronts passing through are not the only thing happening. Blumenfeld added that airports across the state — where many weather measurements are taken — in recent years have begun using high-tech sonic wind sensors with no moving parts.

“While we know it’s definitely been gusty, we don’t yet know if these new sensors are more sensitive than their predecessors,” Blumenfeld noted.

However, even that would not explain such a large increase.

“One of the reasons we’re cautious about interpreting some of these recent changes in wind gusts is that they really do look quite dramatic. Gusty days in Duluth have basically doubled, or more than doubled compared to historical averages, and that’s what we’re seeing statewide,” he added. “We had a lot of temperature changes this winter, but they didn’t stand out that much. If it really has become twice as gusty, that would indicate a fundamental change in certain weather conditions, those that govern wind and gusts, and we don’t have evidence of that yet.”

There is evidence that climate change is having an impact, but how or how much is not always clear. A 2019 study by Princeton researchers, published in Nature Climate Change, found that average daily wind speeds in the northern mid-latitudes increased about 7% since 2010 as land temperatures rose, especially at night. That’s a reversal of the decline in wind speeds seen between 1978 and 2010 that had been so remarkable that scientists called it “global stillness.”

Using models to investigate multiple factors that influence the behavior of global winds, the Princeton researchers found that large weather patterns that affect temperatures in certain parts of the world have a large influence on wind speed. Temperature differences between neighboring regions, or between the ocean and nearby land areas, can affect airflow. The authors suggested that a shift between certain natural weather cycles may have helped trigger the switch from slower to faster winds.

Gusty days in Duluth have basically doubled, or more than doubled compared to historical averages, and that’s what we’re seeing statewide.

Kenny Blumenfeld, Minnesota State Bureau of Climatology

Locally, a study by University of Minnesota Duluth researcher Jay Austin, the first person to discover the rapid warming of Lake Superior’s surface waters more than a decade ago, found that those warmer waters, and a lower contrast between water and air temperatures probably led to an increase in wind speed recorded by weather buoys around the large lake. The Austin research found that wind speeds over Lake Superior increased 12 percent between 1985 and 2008 as water temperatures warmed, with lake winds increasing years before onshore winds began to pick up.

Experts note that rising winds are good for carbon-free wind-generated electricity production, but not so good for controlling wildfires.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, the environment, and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be contacted at

jmyers@duluthnews.com

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