Winter could be warmest on record in TC

Feb. 24—TRAVERSE CITY — For Mt. Holiday Executive Director Jim Pearson, it came as little shock to hear the 2023-24 winter could be the warmest on record.

The ski and recreation area in East Bay Township had its tubing run open Friday, along with its blue chair lift, its double tow line and Tucker's Tow, according to Pearson and the ski area's social media. On Saturday, the areas called Upper and Lower Holiday were set to be closed so the Holiday Race Team could practice for its Sunday race, and the Kiwanis Ski School has all but wrapped for the season.

But two of those youth ski instruction sessions were delayed because the ski hill had no snow, and Holiday Race Team has only been at its namesake resort a few times this winter, Pearson said. Skiing was mostly closed to the public, save ski instruction, and all runs were closed for the first several days of February.

"We made a choice to try to save what base we had ...," he said. "Now, we're back blowing snow to try to extend our season a little bit longer."

Pearson said he and the whole nonprofit ski area's crew were out at one point with garbage cans and sleds, dragging snow from parking lot piles to the double tow — known as the bunny hill. It's not the first time outdoor rec areas had to scavenge snow from one spot to save what was left on ski or tubing trails.

It might not be the last, either, with warm highs, above-freezing lows, rain and then sunshine in the forecast.

Traverse City's mean temperature from Dec. 1 through Feb. 22 was 33.4 degrees, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Eleanor Dhuyvetter. That's the warmest according to records over that same stretch of days dating back to 1897. The next warmest mean was Dec. 1, 2022, through Feb. 22, 2023, at 31 degrees.

Forecasts for the next few days show a warm-up is coming, with Tuesday's high temperature expected to hit 59 degrees, Dhuyvetter said. That could break the daily record, set in 2018 at 57 degrees.

But it's still too soon to say the whole winter will do the same.

"We have a pretty good idea at this point that it will be, but it's still late February," Dhuyvetter said.

Warmer winters can sometimes end with cooler springs, and there's still a chance for cold fronts and snow that "scream through" in late winter and early spring, she said.

Higher-than-average temperatures and below-normal snow and rain totals are typical for the midwest during El Niño winters. That's when Pacific Ocean surface temperatures near the equator flip-flop from the typical colder water by Peru and warmer water toward Australia. That in turn impacts winds over the north and south Pacific.

"What that means for us in the U.S. is, since our weather really comes from the Pacific, it has implications downwind," Dhuyvetter said.

That pushes the northern hemisphere's jet stream south from its typical track over North America, causing wetter winters over large swaths from southern California and northern Mexico over to Florida. Much of the continent to the north, meanwhile, gets warmer or drier winters.

El Niño creates what meteorologists call teleconnections, but a handful of warm days like those in the forecast are difficult to attribute to just one.

"There are many, many teleconnections, and they are learning more about them even today," Dhuyvetter said.

For Mt. Holiday, a warm December wiped out Christmas break, which should have been a big week for it and many other ski hills. That makes for six out of seven winters when Mt. Holiday missed a week that can account for two-thirds of its yearly revenue.

Warm December weather also made for little ice on the Great Lakes, with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory announcing in mid-February that ice levels were the lowest since satellite records began in 1973.

Winds blowing over an unfrozen East Grand Traverse Bay affect Mt. Holiday, which now relies on machine-made snow, Pearson said.

"It's just been a real struggle," he said. "There used to be a lot of natural snow, then we would supplement that with manmade snow, and now it's all manmade snow and nature helps us out every once in a while."