El Niño in Marquette

Predicting the weather in Marquette is hard. Predicting the weather in Marquette a whole season in advance? That’s just madness. Predicting El Nio in Marquette is no different than any other winter.  Does anyone remember Lake Superior ice bergs in June? Sporting your Phil’s 550 T-shirt in November without fear of goosebumps? Does just reading the phrase ‘Polar Vortex’ give you flashback shivers? Sorry.

A snowshoer and his dog look out from a ridge deep in the woods north of Ishpeming, Michigan.
This year, weather predictions in the UP will be an even more impossible task as what climatologists are calling a “Super El Niño” gets thrown into the mix. El Niño has a proven track record of making anyone brave enough to predict its outcome a liar. Some years it means an extreme deviation from average temperatures, while sometimes it just proves to be pre-winter hype, producing nothing more than a mild change in temperature and precipitation.
In fact, most of the time, El Niño winters are pretty darn average, particularly in the upper Midwest.

The Dead River in winter near Marquette Michigan.

Those deviations though, linger in our memories. When looking at past El Niño events, there are undoubtedly the years that experienced extreme weather, such as the winter of 1997-1998, which brought substantially warmer temperatures than normal. Some talk about the significant lake effect snowfalls of 2002-2003, which brought an all-time record for most monthly snowfall (92 inches) in February of that year, leading to 300 inches total for Marquette — shattering previous snowfall averages by around 30 inches. Contributing to winter’s unpredictability is the fact that many meteorologists blamed the lack of ice on Lake Superior/Michigan during that winter, not El Niño. This means that lake effect snow is potentially more likely than winters when the lakes are frozen over (such as in 2013-14 and 2014-15).
However, both the driest and second wettest winters on record have occurred during “super” El Niño years, so beyond anecdotal accounts, it’s difficult to make a broad prediction as to what any given El Niño will bring.

THE MARQUETTE LIGHTHOUSE WITH MOONRISE AND ICY SHORES IN WINTER IN MARQUETTE MICHIGAN.
For the sake of dreaming though, there do seem to be two notable patterns that this weather phenomenon travels north — namely, drier-than-average precipitation levels and warmer-than-normal temperatures. This is typically blamed on El Niño’s tendency to push the polar jet stream farther north into Canada, which brings the average temperatures in the region up by an average of 5 degrees, thereby lessening this winter’s chances for that all-too-familiar “polar vortex.” This also assures that temperatures will generally hover closer to the 20s and 30s rather than the 10s. So it might be warm. Ish.

Maybe.
But what about the snow?

View of rugged winter terrain near Marquette Michigan including Hogback Mountain part of the Escanaba River State Forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Whether this next El Niño will cause extreme snowfalls or temperatures fluctuations is yet to be determined, but it can be said that in 2002, a warmer, drier winter was exactly what was predicted for Marquette, and the rest of the Midwest.

The warmer temperatures ended up contributing to a much snowier winter in the UP — because, as we’ve certainly learned, the big lakes have a mind of their own, and they won’t let just any tropical weather phenomenon get in their way. Lake Superior is, after all, like a trump card when it comes to the weather patterns here in the UP.

Skiers compete in the Noquemanon Ski Marathon cross country Nordic ski race from Ishpeming to Marquette Michigan.
There is one common disclaimer amongst scientists in regards to El Niño winters: El Niño is more responsible for the long-term weather throughout a given season, and less so for short-term weather events. So there will still be massive blizzards and -27 degree days and debilitating ice storms. But El Niño likely won’t be responsible for it.

For now, we’re betting on another Marquette winter — and whatever ridiculous, unpredicted weather that will inevitably entail.

 

Words by Amanda Monthei