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Is the Minnesota winter broken? Climatologists say not yet

This is not exactly an exemplary Minnesota winter.

This is not exactly an exemplary Minnesota winter. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Your friends from out of town have all been asking: Is this it? Is this muggy, foggy, snowless weather the infamous Minnesota winter?

And of course, if you’re from here, you know it isn’t. Not even close.

December was one of the warmest in the history of the state, dating back to 1885. Over 70 percent of its days were warmer than normal, and some places -- looking at you, Browns Valley -- saw temperatures in the 50s. In the Twin Cities alone, the month was 6 degrees warmer than average.

Somewhere deep down, in a place we only keep our anxieties about the sun exploding and Betty White dying, you’ve probably had the thought Minnesota Department of Natural Resources climatologist Kenny Blumenfeld describes:

“‘Oh my gosh, this is it -- this is the end of winter,’” he says.

Blumenfeld and fellow climatologist Pete Boulay have some cold comfort for you. Though our winters have been steadily warming for decades, even faster than our other seasons (we’re 5 degrees warmer on average than we were in 1970), it is not the end of winter. Climate change is certainly part of the problem, but there’s another phenomenon you can also blame for our warm winter woes this year: El Niño.

You’ve probably heard El Niño mentioned before, but in the kind of amorphous, opaque way people say stuff like Mercury is in retrograde. El Niño is a sloshy ribbon of warm water that sits around the equator. Like everything else in the Pacific, El Niño gets pushed around by the waves and sometimes laps up where it shouldn’t be. And wherever it goes, the evaporating water does wacky things to the atmosphere.

This year, El Niño has rambled unusually far north, which has pushed the jet stream -- a coil of fast-flowing air currents wandering around our atmosphere -- northward, too: right around the Canadian border. This carried balmy air from the western Pacific right over Minnesota, resulting in our relatively tropical weather conditions.

We’ve had these warm weather spikes for centuries during El Niño winters, and although this year hasn’t been officially declared one yet, Blumenfeld and Boulay say there’s about a “90 percent chance” it will be.

Here's the bad news: These might be exceptional conditions even for an El Niño year. We’ve already had a few record highs this month, and if we avoid going below 0 degrees until after January 18, we’ll have set a new precedent for that, too.

Climate change has been compared by a few climatologists to steroids. An athlete on steroids is bound to break more records than she normally would -- just like our weather on climate change. But if climate change is steroids, El Niño might as well be blood doping. If an athlete is using both, it’s almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

“It’s hard to tell how much of this [winter] is climate change, and how much is El Niño,” Boulay says. That’s something we won’t know until later, when the reality of our present becomes the datapoint of our future.

So if you’re fretting about never seeing winter again, don’t. A lot can change over the course of a season, and Boulay and Blumenfeld agree that winter in Minnesota generally isn’t over until we’re all cold, wet, and sick of it. If you’re dying for a little dose of winter this very instant, just head up north. Duluth has something like 13 inches of snow right now.

But do keep a little kernel of caution in the back of your mind. Winter is changing, and has been, slowly, for years. Unless we do something about it, it will continue to slip away.