The Environment Report
8:55 am
Tue February 11, 2014

How bad (or wonderful) is this winter?

Barbara Mayes Boustead on the "misery index" - or "index of greatness" for you winter lovers. (Story starts about a minute in)

Maybe you think this is the best winter ever.  Or maybe you’ve had some choice words for Punxsatawney Phil.

So, just how bad - or how fabulous - is this winter? There’s a scientist in Nebraska who has put a number on it.

Barbara Mayes Boustead is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service and a PhD candidate in Climate Assessment and Impacts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Boustead and her colleague, Steve Hilberg, a climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at the University of Illinois, have developed a winter severity index.

"I'd just as soon winter get done with, so to me, it is an index of misery."

“To him, winter is wonderful, so to him, this is an index of winter greatness. To me, I’d just as soon winter get done with, so to me, it is an index of misery,” she says.

The index's full name is the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index. Boustead and Hilberg have been tracking how cold and snowy each winter is, and how long it lasts. They can track winters back to the year 1950, when this kind of record-keeping started.

Detroit breaks its own record

Boustead offered to run some numbers for Michigan.

“We’ve looked at Detroit and we’ve looked at Sault Ste. Marie, and in Detroit what we found out is this year, at least to date, is the most severe so far since 1950-51,” she says.

This winter in the Detroit area beats out even those epic winters of the late 1970s.

In Sault Ste. Marie, of course, people are used to severe winters. There, it’s the 9th most severe winter on record.

We've gotten spoiled

If you’ve been feeling especially miserable, Boustead says it’s probably partly because we’ve gotten used to warmer winters lately.

“You know, one thing we are noticing in our index is overall, there’s a trend toward less severe winters, pretty much everywhere, especially when it comes to temperatures. So when we do get these years that are pretty cold, they feel more unusual to us because they are more unusual now.”

She says with climate change, we can still expect some extremes like we’re getting this winter.

“And one thing it’s loading the dice toward is getting less frequent cold air outbreaks, but they’re still just as cold when they do happen, so to us it feels more abrupt, more extreme.”

She says in Michigan, we might also get more lake effect snow with the lakes not freezing over as much.