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An El Niño winter is leaving the North Country frequently frosted

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/10/19

It seems that every winter paints a different portrait of the North Country. Sometimes hard and brutal. Other times, like this winter, showing a softer side.

The effects of another …

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Like a picture postcard

An El Niño winter is leaving the North Country frequently frosted

Posted

It seems that every winter paints a different portrait of the North Country. Sometimes hard and brutal. Other times, like this winter, showing a softer side.

The effects of another still-developing El Niño in the Pacific, combined with the steady warming of our winters in general, has kept the North Country under a consistent pattern of warmer-than-normal temperatures since early December. We’ve seen such patterns before, where a colder-than-average fall season transitions to a mild winter. We still have the back half of the winter to go, of course, so it’s too early to say how we’ll rate this season when it’s all said and done.

It seems no matter the weather, winter here offers something unique, that reminds me again why winter has become my second favorite season (fall, of course, is everyone’s favorite time in the North Country). When we meet people who spend their winters in warmer places, they often wonder why anyone would choose to live here through the dark and cold of winter.

My response is always the same. Winter here is like living in a Christmas postcard— the kind where the snow lies heavy on spruce and fir and the smoke trails from the chimney of the little log cabin in the woods. “Wishing you Peace on Earth,” it usually says, and I think to myself there’s no need for wishing. This is our life in the North Country.

Then there are the mornings like we’ve had recently, when our confused jet stream pushes mild and moist air far beyond its normal range for this time of year, and coats our world in hoar-frost.

As I’ve written before, my wife Jodi and I live on a ridge overlooking the Lost Lake Swamp, a miles-long peatland full of interesting stories I’ve related on these pages for decades now. While our view is spectacular in any season, the view of the frosted forest stretching for miles is the most spectacular vision of all.

Hoar-frost is more common here in late winter, as the increasingly regular intrusions of milder air begin to herald the eventual arrival of spring. But in the depths of January, when our air masses typically originate in the dry Arctic, hoar-frost is far from common.

Hoar-frost forms most often as milder air, laden with moisture, comes in contact with a cold surface, whether it’s the windshield of your car, or the frozen needles and branches of trees in the forest.

It often arrives on a west breeze, and you can feel the moisture as it moves through the woods. It often begins with a morning fog, which lifts later in the day to peeks of sun. When those first rays of sunlight strike the frosted trees, it’s nothing short of breathtaking.

That’s why when I think of those who spend winter to our south, I mostly just feel sympathy. In so much of the country, winter is just a nuisance, not really a true season like we experience here in the North Country. The summer warmth is gone, but the cold doesn’t really linger. Snow comes as a sloppy mess, sending inexperienced drivers spinning, then quickly disappears.

Here, winter is real, even in a mild El Niño year like we’re experiencing now. And it has a beauty that is unsurpassed.

Why live here in winter? I often think of a friend from Ely who likes to say he could be making $40,000 more a year if he lived in the Twin Cities. But he says the view from his window is worth at least $50,000, which means he’s $10,000 ahead on the deal. That’s the kind of math I can get behind.

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