As Earth warms, Michigan's Upper Peninsula to get more snow

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Even with its reputation for heavy snowfall, the 2018-2019 winter has been anomalous for Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

“We had snow early this year, then we lost it,” said Randy Brown, a park supervisor of Fayette Historic State Park, located on the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula. “Now we have more snow on the ground than I've seen in years.”

On flat ground in the woods, the snow goes past Brown's knees. It doesn't bother him though.

“It's not that bad actually, If you're into that 18-24 inches,” he said.

Brown isn't alone in his acknowledgement. Rangers from other state parks dotted around Michigan's Upper Peninsula are seeing similar examples of more snow than usual. Along the Keweenaw Peninsula, the supervisor of McLain State Park is in his fifth year on the job - and he's never seen this much snow before.

“Oh, this is the most snow we've seen,” said Jamie Metheringham. “You get used to it after awhile though. But we average almost 300 inches a year and it sometimes starts in mid-October.”

However, this season's more snow presents an apparent contradiction. Why would a climate shown to be warming result in more snow - a clear indication that cold weather is still present in the state? A University of Michigan professor said while it may seem contradictory, it makes atmospheric sense.

“A warming climate would mean more lake effect snow because the lakes are staying unfrozen for longer,” said Richard Rood, with the Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department. “The basic idea is that if the air is warmer, or the lake is not frozen, then the water can evaporate and go into the air. Because it's warm, it can hold more water, just like in the summer.”

However, temperatures will still decrease enough that when that evaporated water precipitates, it will fall as snow. What that means is when the lakes freeze over, lake-effect snow is less likely to occur because the atmosphere isn't drawing moisture from the lakes to create more snow.

This trend was displayed in a comparison of snowfall totals over two 29 year climate assessments. While less snow is falling across and along Ohio River Valley, there are higher totals falling in the Upper Peninsula and northern part of the lower peninsula.


As the Earth warms, the Great Lakes region represents somewhat of an oddity - and not just because of the increased snowfall.

A PopSci video produced in 2016 analyzed what the country will look like after climate change has its way with us by 2100. Hurricanes will plague the south and eastern seaboard. Droughts will suck the mountain west dry while mosquitoes will discover the Midwest to be a more hospitable environment, and bring diseases with them.

But Michigan and some surrounding areas appears to come away relatively unscathed - leading to the conclusion Michigan will be the best place to live.

Rood said while the visual is an oversimplification of what will come with our warming trends, there is a truth to the video's notion - including the potential safe haven Michigan will become.

An obvious reason is the significance of having such a bounty of water as a resource. That's unique to the region. But less apparent is the natural buffer such large water bodies have on the area.

“From a climate perspective, the lakes are a moderating effect,” Rood said. “There's a natural tendency to keep it warmer in the winter and keep it cooler in the summer.”

Rood said the Great Lakes absorb the weather fluctuations; such large bodies of water take a long time to cool in the winter, but also take a long time to heat up in the summer. That dynamic interacts with the air temperature and moderates the regional weather patterns.

This normalizing feature has led Rood to call the Michigan a “Climate Winner.”

For those that desire both cold winters and warm summers, it's welcome news. And for those that look forward to the outdoor recreation only offered by layers of snow, it's even better news.

The heavy snowfall means winter sports are in full swing across the Upper Peninsula. The Copper Dog 150 sled race is scheduled for March 1. Metheringham said there's people staying at their cabins every week, enjoying snowmobiling, cross country skiing and surfing (yes, you read that right).

“They put heavy wet suits on, go out and surf because the lake turns over, so you get some big waves out there,” Metheringham said. “...some of the guys out there in December, they look just like a beardsickle.”

At the Porcupine Mountains, snow shoeing has picked up, while back country camping has continued, despite the temperatures.

Back in the historic town of Fayette, Brown said the wind is always blowing, but that doesn't detract from the fun.

“If you dress properly, you know, with the old classics of layer-layer-layer, you'll have fun down there,” he said. “You can enjoy that winter look.”