The Miserable Month of March
by CRAIG JAMES
Isn’t there a saying that goes something like: “30 days have September, April, May, June and November. All the rest have 31, with the exception of March that has at least 80?” Or at least that’s the way it feels to me. We keep being teased by spring weather in March, but it is a long time until it actually gets here to stay.
That may especially be the case this year with the current weather pattern of a fairly strong La Niña and a cold phase of the Pacific Ocean called a cold PDO. When this type of pattern exists, it is not uncommon for the first year of the La Niña to have a cold winter. But wait! The second and third year of the La Niña tend to have even colder winters. That doesn’t bode well for the next two winters unless you like snow and cold.
During the spring months of this type of pattern, the storm track is usually from the southwestern part of the country right up into the Great Lakes. These storms usually bring us fairly heavy precipitation of both rain and snow. And this pattern usually lasts at least into April. Yippee!
Along with this type of pattern comes an increased risk for severe flooding. At the end of February, several river gauges in Indiana and Ohio were at or near record high levels. The amount of water locked up in the snow cover across much of northern New England, the Dakotas and Minnesota is currently about 6 to 10 inches. Unfortunately, early spring storms frequently bring more snow to these areas before the warmer rain arrives, so the potential for serious flooding is quite high.
You can see in this spring flood forecast issued by NOAA that the eastern Dakotas and Minnesota may again be in for severe floods. The areas in purple have a 90% chance or better of major flooding and at least a 10% to 30% chance of record flooding. The Red River Valley along the North Dakota border all the way north to Winnipeg, Canada has a history of frequent flooding. You may remember the terrible disaster in 1997 in Grand Forks, North Dakota when not only was most of the town under several feet of water but also a major fire at the same time destroyed 11 buildings and 60 apartment units.
Another unwelcome result of this weather pattern is an increase in severe weather. A similar pattern in 1974 produced the biggest outbreak of tornadoes in U.S. history in early April. I remember that the National Weather Service was so behind on the fast-changing weather that day they issued a thunderstorm warning for Kent County when the storm had already moved off to the east and was in Montcalm County. Upgrading of equipment and personnel has insured the National Weather Service will not have that problem again.
On April 3, 1956, a similar pattern produced the last F5 tornado recorded in the state of Michigan. The tornado traveled for 52 miles from Hudsonville to Lakeview in northern Montcalm County. March of that year was very cold with almost 18 inches of snow. On April 1, the temperature hit 50 degrees. On the 2nd, it hit 60 and on the 3rd, the day of the tornado, the temperature climbed into the upper 70s. After the tornado, more snow and cold followed, for much of early April, which really hampered cleanup efforts.
I’m not forecasting anything that severe this year, but both March and April will bring a good deal of both rain and snow with a lot of ups and downs in the temperature. And when the temperature is up, we’ll have a better chance of severe weather than we’ve seen the past several years. That warrants another sarcastic “yippee!”
Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.