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Minnesota’s winter winds set records

It’s not just a Duluth phenomenon. In the Twin Cities, winds gusted to 30 mph or higher on 46 days this winter, blowing away the previous record of 32 gusty days.

Windy day.
A dogsled team crosses Ensign Lake east of Ely through wind-driven snow March 2. The number of winter days with strong wind gusts is increasing in Minnesota.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The wind has been blowing across Minnesota in recent winters like it hasn’t in at least the past half-century, part of a recent gusty trend that climatologists and meteorologists are at a loss to fully explain.

December through February was the second windiest meteorological winter in Duluth, measured by the number of high-gust days, topped only by the winter of 2019-20, said Kenny Blumenfeld of the Minnesota State Climatology Office.

In Duluth, winds gusted to 30 mph or higher on 40 days over those three months this winter. The past few years have been the windiest on record by far.

“The whole of 2021 was gusty, too, with 133 of those 30 mph gust days, behind 2020, which had 134 such days," Blumenfeld noted.

Northlanders noticed the wind-chill factor while ice fishing, on chairlifts at ski hills and just walking their dogs. In combination with colder-than-normal temperatures since January, the winds made the winter seem even more brutal.

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Accurate, comparable wind data only goes back to 1973, Blumenfeld noted, when airports standardized where they took wind measurements, so it’s unclear if our ancestors experienced gustier times.

windsurfer
A wind surfer catches a Lake Superior wave as winds gusted to 30 mph and more in Duluth. The number of days with gusty winds has increased rapidly in recent years across Minnesota.
Steve Kuchera / 2021 file / Duluth News Tribune

Windiest winter in Twin Cities, St. Cloud

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

St. Cloud had 29 days with 30 mph gusts over 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 beginning of much gustier times in Minnesota, with annual 30 mph gust days increasing dramatically over previous levels. Like Duluth, 2020 was the gustiest full year in southern Minnesota as well, with 168 days of 30 mph gusts in the Twin Cities and 114 at St. Cloud.

gusty_winter_21-22.jpg
The number of days with winds gusting to 30 mph or more has been rapidly increasing across Minnesota since about 2011, but especially over the past few years.
Contributed / Minnesota State Climatology Office

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 lots of fronts pass by.

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

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Reasons unclear

But more passing weather fronts aren’t the only thing going on. Blumenfeld added that airports across the state (where many weather measurements are taken) in recent years began using high-tech sonic wind sensors with no moving parts.

“Although we know it definitely has been gusty, we do not yet know if these new sensors are more sensitive than their predecessors,” Blumenfeld noted.

Yet, even that wouldn’t explain such a big increase.

“One of the reasons we’re cautious about interpreting some of these recent changes in wind gusts is that they really look pretty dramatic. The gusty days at Duluth have basically doubled, or more-than-doubled compared to historical averages, and that’s what we’re seeing across the state,’’ he added. “We had a lot of temperature changes this winter, but they didn’t stand out quite like that. If it truly has become twice as gusty, that would indicate a fundamental change in certain meteorological conditions — those that govern windiness and gustiness — and we do not have evidence for that just yet.”

There is evidence that climate change is having an impact, but it’s not always clear how or how much. A 2019 study by Princeton researchers, published in Nature Climate Change, found that the daily average wind speed over the northern mid latitudes increased roughly 7% since 2010 as over land temperatures have increased, especially at night. That’s a reversal of declining wind speeds observed from 1978 to 2010 that had been so noticeable that scientists called it “global terrestrial stilling.”

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

The gusty days at Duluth have basically doubled, or more-than-doubled compared to historical averages, and that’s what we’re seeing across the state.
Kenny Blumenfeld, Minnesota State Climatology Office

Locally, a study by University of Minnesota Duluth researcher Jay Austin, the first person to uncover the rapid warming of Lake Superior surface waters more than a decade ago, found that those warming waters — and less contrast between water and air temperatures — likely led to an increase in wind speeds recorded by weather buoys around the big lake. Austin’s research found that wind speeds over Lake Superior increased 12% between 1985 and 2008 as water temperatures warmed, with lake winds increasing years before over-land winds started going up.

Experts note that increasing winds are good for production of carbon-free, wind-generated electricity but not so good for keeping forest fires in check.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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