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Where is Winter? We Do A Deep Dive on the Recent Warm Temperatures

Nino Temp
Nino Wet
Nina Wet
Nina Temp

“Roller-coaster” is a good way to describe our weather for the 2022-23 winter in Northern Michigan so far.

We have managed to get some cold air that also brought LOTS of snow for some areas back in December. During the Christmas weekend storm, areas in the Northern Lower got over 3 feet of snow, and temperatures were in the single digits.

But the snowy periods have been broken up by times of mild weather. This “balmy” weather makes it feel like an atypical winter.

Here, we break down what in the atmosphere is causing the seemingly warm temperatures to dominate our Michigan Winter Wonderland.

The Jet Stream

A jet stream is an area of air that is moving quickly up to eight miles above the Earth’s surface. The winds speeds in a jet stream can get up to 275 mph.

Fun fact: There is more than one jet stream! But the jet stream we talk about in Northern Michigan is called the Polar Jet. It gets its name because it is positioned in the polar region, between the latitudes 50°-60°N.

For reference, you may have passed the 45th Parallel sign while driving on I-75 near Gaylord. Sault Ste. Marie is about 46° N. So we’re relatively close to the polar region here in Northern Michigan!

The Polar Jet stream helps keep the cold air in the polar regions, but there are times when it moves and the exact location varies.

When the Earth tilts, the jet stream also shifts. On the first day of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, the Earth is tilted the farthest away from the sun and is gradually tilting back toward the sun in the days after.

While doing so, the jet stream “follows” the sun. So when the sun has a more southerly angle, the jet stream also moves south. That usually means we will get more chances of colder air from the Arctic here in Michigan.

Right now, the jet stream is dipping farther south in the United States, helping create a trough of cold air. Michigan is positioned where the winds are flowing out of the south, which is helping bring in warmer air.

In the video below, you can see the winds flow direction based on the moving white lines. You can also see the speeds based on the color shading. The strongest are depicted by the purple and white shading.

The position of the jet stream does not only help determine where there will be warm and cold air (warm air south of the jet stream, cold air north), but it also influences where storm systems go, like low-pressure systems.

Aside from “following” the sun, the jet stream can also be affected by other things like El Niño and La Niña.

Low-Pressure Systems 

Low-pressure systems are the cause of much of our active weather, no matter where you are.

They are almost always located downstream of a cold air trough. The low-pressure system has air flow that travels counter-clockwise, so it brings air from all directions.

Where you are, compared to where the low pressure is, will determine how much wind you get, what temperatures you will feel and if you will get any precipitation.

For example, Michael Stevens explains where different areas will be seeing different amount of snow with the current low-pressure system:

The south portion of the low pressure, below the warm front, is where you will have the warmest air. The winds will be out of a southerly direction, bringing in the warm air.

“Warm air advection” is what it is called when warm air is being “blown” in with the south winds.

Since the trough and jet stream are located where they are, the low-pressure systems we are getting are tracking more north. This allows warmer air to also be pulled more north into Michigan.

El Niño/La Niña 

These two events cause global chain reactions that start in the Southern Pacific Ocean. El Niño is when the waters in the Southern Pacific are warmer than usual, and La Niña is when the water is cooler than normal.

El Niño Temperature Outlook

During an El Niño event, the Polar Jet is more north, keeping warmer air over the northern United States, and less rain and snow. La Niña often brings the opposite conditions.

El Niño Precipitation Outlook

In a La Niña, the jet stream is more south bringing the chances of more rain or snow, while the temperatures tend to be closer to average.

La Niña Precipitation Outlook

Right now, we are in a La Niña phase, so we are seeing the jet stream farther south into the United States.

La Niña Temperature Outlook

What is Normal? 

So even though the jet stream is farther south, we are still experiencing warmer temperatures because of the exact position of the troughs and ridges in our jet stream.

What we are experiencing right now may be classified as above-average temperatures and precipitation, but that doesn’t mean what is happening is out of the ordinary.

The average is based on the weather that happens over a period of time. In climate, it is a 30-year period. The climate normal of an area is the typical weather that has been experienced over 30-years.

For example, the average temperature for January for the Cherry Capitol Airport in Traverse City is 23°F. That means all the temperatures recorded (both highs and lows) for each day in January, from 1991-2020 are added together, then divided by 29 (for the number of years).

The warm weather we are seeing now is above the 30-year-average, but it is not unusual to have them this warm. Back in 2007, we also had warm weather to start the New Year.

Sault Ste. Marie set a record for the highest average temperature of 39°F on Jan. 4 in 2007.

Gaylord also had a balmy day on Jan. 4 in 2007, with a high temperature of 45°F.

Overall, what we are seeing now is not out of the ordinary for January and there are cooler temperatures and chances for snow yet to come.

Check out one more video that explains what the jet stream has been up to.

Stay up-to-date on the latest forecast with the