This winter tested Minnesota’s readiness and resilience. How’d we do?
As trees bud and flowers poke through saturated ground under spring showers, it’s tempting to just forget about the snowy, cold, icy winter Minnesota just lived through, and move right on in to the long days of spring. But the effects of this eventful winter and the stories of how it touched people linger:
• Kids and parents in Faribault will think about it in June when they add three school days to the calendar to make up for lost learning time.
• An apple grower in New Ulm will check trees to see if the deep snow that kept her from pruning will hurt this year’s crop.
• A Twin Cities businessman forced to cancel sales events and close shop during the extreme cold snap will try to recoup losses.
• And the people who manage our roads, transit, schools and energy systems are analyzing how well those systems responded.
Winter weather affects budgets and bottom lines. It also tests our ability to cope with the unexpected at a time when Minnesota’s climate is changing, requiring a certain level of resilience to sustain our quality of life. If anything, this winter showed us there’s room for improvement.
“It’s made me very reflective on where I want to go from here,” said Pamela Karbon, who lives in St. Paul. She is in her early 60s and is now considering leaving Minnesota for good. “I can’t see myself retiring and living in this climate.”
Are Minnesota’s winters getting worse? It’s a highly subjective question. Plenty of Minnesotans welcomed the snow and cold, especially after experiencing some recent mild winters that made activities like hockey, skiing and sledding a challenge.
“I love winter and am worried that our winters are warming, with likely adverse impacts on the systems that sustain us,” said Anne Reich of Marine on St. Croix.
The climate trend is clear: Minnesota is getting warmer, especially in the winter. And it’s getting wetter, overall. And while state climate experts for years have been emphasizing that more of our precipitation is coming in the form of big rain events, they’re now seeing strong evidence of more heavy snow events, too.
For example, the weather station at the Twin Cities airport recorded eight days this winter with heavy snow — 4 or more inches — which is a good indicator that snow is seriously hampering our ability to get around. The only other time the Twin Cities has had that many days of heavy snow was the winter of 1961-1962. Overall, it snowed on 46 days this winter at the airport, according to the State Climatology Office.
Snow-covered roads and frigid temperatures made the 2018-19 school year a blockbuster for cancellations. Cities struggled to keep up with plowing and snow removal. Snow and ice slowed everyone down — from pedestrians shuffling on ice-covered sidewalks to buses and even light rail trains.
“Many communities are not prepared for the climate we already have,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist with the state’s climatology office.
With warmer winters, Minnesota should be getting less snow, because more of it should be falling as rain, right?
Nope. Blumenfeld said the data show that overall snowfall and days with heavy snowfall are on the rise. At the same time, more would-be snow is coming down as rain.
Broken, bruised, grateful
Still, there’s a lot of variation and nuance that affect how we experience our changing winters.
Ice is one factor that can add singular disruptions and complications. In April, southern Minnesota got a whiff of the types of ice storms that cripple infrastructure in the southern Midwest. In rural areas, people fired up generators as they waited for days for the power to come back on.
Blumenfeld and his colleagues haven’t seen a measurable uptick in ice storms, but the number of winter days with both measurable precipitation — rain or snow — and above-freezing temperatures is on the rise.
During one icy stretch in the Twin Cities this winter, hospital emergency rooms reported more slip-and-fall injuries than they’re used to handling.
And while winter took a physical toll on some, it took a mental toll on others.
”The problem is the mental stress that adds up over time,” said Amy Anderson of St. Paul. “When it goes on for days and we are physically exhausted, and ‘Oh no, another storm is on the way’ or something has broken or you have to figure out yet another solution to an unexpected problem, then you get to a snapping point.”
Karbon, the St. Paul woman contemplating a move out of state, said she was thankful to have an infrared sauna, full-spectrum light and hot baths to relax muscles sore from shoveling.
”I feel pretty isolated,” she said. “Some days you go, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’ and then you find out it is.”
Snowy winter, costly winter
In years with mild winters, we talk about the weather’s adverse economic impact on the winter sports industry. In years with harsh winters, we talk about damage to infrastructure or lost productivity from snow days.
Calculating an economic net loss or gain in a given winter gets complicated quickly, and state and local governments are still assessing this winter’s financial toll.
For those tasked with snow removal, February was especially rough. St. Paul declared so many snow emergencies that during one 22-day stretch, plow drivers were out clearing roads on 19 of them, said Russ Stark, the city’s chief resilience officer. St. Paul hasn’t tallied how much this winter has cost it, but Stark said he expects it will be on the high end of what the city has seen in the past.
”It’s a lot of work in a concentrated period of time,” he said. “There’s just sort of a human toll of all that, in addition to the cost of the labor and the cost of the equipment.”
Statewide, transportation officials estimate this winter’s labor and equipment costs for dealing with snow and ice will add up to about $140 million, which would be a 14-year high. That doesn’t include extras, like the $9,850 it cost the state in February for the National Guard to set up shelters and rescue stranded motorists during a blizzard.
Homeowners and businesses also incurred unexpected costs this winter.
”I don’t remember anything like it or close to it,” said Farzan Navab, co-owner of St. Louis Park-based Navab Brothers Oriental Rug Company and American Rug Laundry. He said the business is behind by 20 to 25 percent compared to last year. He closed shop during the extreme cold snap and had to cancel a sale despite having invested in an advertising campaign.
In the future, Navab said, “I think we have to calculate for these days. It may be a new normal. We don’t know, but we have to take into consideration that these months can be gruesome.”
This winter left Farwell, Minn., turkey farmer Erica Sawatzke wondering what to change to ensure the operation can be passed down to a seventh generation. Heavy snow brought down the roof of one the west-central Minnesota farm’s barns, which was typically used to house 3,000 egg-laying turkey hens.
”Our livelihood really depends on the weather,” Sawatzke said. “A lot of people think insurance will cover this, or they’ll cover that, but the reality is insurance will cover the building you had.”
Sawatzke’s grandfather, now in his 80s, built the now-collapsed barn in 1964. Sawatzke farms with her father and uncle, both of whom she says will want to retire at some point. And she’s pregnant with her first child. Alongside those factors, the harsh winter has accelerated the family’s conversations about what’s next.
”You kind of have to look at the future and what direction you want your business to go,” Sawatzke said. “We made it through a tornado [two years ago], and we’ll make it through this. I think, as farmers, you’re resilient, and there’s a lot of pride in what we do. We want to be here.”
Caretaking takes on new meaning
Caring for livestock, homes, kids or elderly family members is more challenging in extreme weather.
Katie Jackson, a homeowner and mom of two in Minneapolis, said this winter was one of the toughest she remembers. Caretaking duties increased because of day care cancellations, her family got sick a lot and she and her wife found themselves climbing a ladder and flinging pantyhose full of ice melt at a massive ice dam on their home.
The silver lining? Plenty of sledding, family time and winning a gift card to a local brewery as champions of a “worst ice dam” contest.
“Despite the horror of the winter, I feel really lucky,” Jackson said. “We really do have an amazing quality of life here, and I do love it here.”
Winter challenges don’t fall on everyone equally. Office workers can often work remotely and avoid dangerous road conditions. But those who work in service jobs can’t.
Some parents without paid sick time lost wages when they were forced to stay home with their kids on snow days. And for some kids, the lost academic time is a worry, said Catrice O’Neal, who directs out-of-school-time programs at Plymouth Christian Youth Center in north Minneapolis.
“Those school-aged kids are home, and they’re not interacting and they’re not engaging,” she said. “It’s a huge impact for families who have to call in sick to work and aren’t making money that day and then kids are missing out on their regular, scheduled programming.”
PCYC cancels its programming on snow days because the kids enrolled get to the after-school programming — and home again — by school bus. And when schools are closed, the buses don’t run. O’Neal said some families can lean on older siblings or grandparents for child care, but not all parents have that option, leaving many scrambling.
“Families come back [to school and after-school programs] with a great level of enthusiasm after a few snow days,” she said. “It’s like, no parent wants their kid on Fortnite for eight hours a day.”
Some school districts might be more cautious about declaring snow days than in the past, but Faribault Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker said the weather itself is to blame for the large number of cancellations. Sesker has worked in education for 34 years — and before that, he watched his dad make weather calls as a superintendent.
“This, by far, has been the most challenging winter that I can ever remember,” Sesker said.
His school district canceled 10 days of classes this winter because of the cold and snow, plus a day last fall because of a tornado.
The state Legislature passed a law allowing school districts to forgo the annual instruction time requirements this year, but Sesker said Faribault will make up three of those days in June to fulfill the district’s teacher contract.
Sesker said he’s gotten an earful from parents, students and teachers on the decision to make up days in June.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Sesker said. “But hey, the students are safe, we made it through the winter — knock on wood, hopefully we don’t have any more storms. If this is all I have to deal with, I’ll take that every time.”