The north central community of Valentine typically gets three feet of snow during the winter; this year, it received just 16 inches. The norm for Columbus in eastern Nebraska is 25 inches; this year it received 13.
In the southwest corner, McCook's average is 26 inches; this year it had just 12 inches. Check any Nebraska town, in any part of the state, and you'll find that there hasn't been a lot of snow this year - but there have been a lot of warmer-than-usual days.
Click the image for a larger version of drought conditions in Nebraska.
"Weather in Nebraska is unusual. Whenever we use the term normal,' it's rarely ever normal," said Ken Dewey, a climatologist and professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He added that it's been a mild winter not only in Nebraska but throughout the continental United States. Credit goes to La Nina, an ocean and atmosphere situation that impacts weather patterns.
"This is a La Nina winter that we're coming out of," Dewey said, "and La Nina is famous for a split jet flow, which means there's a barrier of strong winds across the Canadian-U.S. border, which usually buckles, allowing the cold air to come down here and give us at least a few weeks of winter at a time.
"We've only had a few days of winter at a time," he continued. "And the cold air has remained largely north of our nearest Canadian large city, Winnipeg."
That has meant a winter that it's easy to think must be among the warmest and driest on record, but Dewey is quick to put a damper on that notion.
"In fact, it is unusual in that it is warmer and dryer than normal," he said. "Is it record-breaking? No. Is it near record-breaking? No. Is it record-breaking to our north? Yes. And that's where we've seen the more dramatic departure from normal. It's one of our winters, and we've had many of them lately, where it's been warmer than normal and less snow than normal."
In Valentine, for example, it's the eighth-lowest snowfall total since 1900. But Valentine City Manager Shane Siewert doesn't care much about climate records - he just knows that a mild winter is a cheaper winter. Valentine has spent about half of what it normally spends on snow removal.
"We took a look at our costs this year as compared to the same time last year, and we basically saved about $8,000," Siewert said. "Probably about $4,000 of it is overtime. We've had that much less overtime this year. We've used less gravel and salt. Although we've already bought it, we haven't used as much as we normally would, so we'll be able to carry that over into next year. And we've saved some fuel."
In addition, less snow means more time for cities to get ahead on other projects.
"What our crews try to do is get a leg ahead on tree trimming and tree removals in right of way and in the parks, and both the street department and our parks department were able to do those kinds of things over the winter months," said Joe Mangiamelli, Columbus city administrator. "That might not have been able to be done until spring, so we're ahead of the game a little bit for this year's activities."
"We use everybody on our snow removal," said Jeff Hancock, McCook city manager. "When we don't have to do that, we're able to do such things as get a head start on the potholes and our parks projects."
But this winter hasn't been good for people with snow removal businesses, or stores that sell shovels and sleds. It also raises concerns about drought, Hancock said.
"The bad part is that we haven't had the moisture, and so it's getting dry out here."
McCook is in an area that is considered "abnormally dry," according to the latest (March 15) U.S. Drought Monitor from the National Drought Mitigation Center at UNL. About a third of the state, mainly northeast and southwest, is considered "abnormally dry." That's the stage just below "moderate drought."
"You're not much more than a couple weeks of rainy weather away from coming out of it," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist and climate-based monitoring area leader for the National Drought Mitigation Center. "We don't have huge deficits to overcome."
Svoboda added that warm temperatures helped temper the impact of less snow because the soil wasn't as frozen.
"We were really able to receive precipitation in February with both snow and rain that normally would just stay on top, run off into the streets," Svoboda said, "and that was pretty beneficial rain, so when we look at the recharge season since October, it's been pretty normal. It's been better in some parts of the state than the others. I'd say right now, the one that's kind of a concern a little bit is northeast Nebraska."
Where do we go from here? Forecasters see higher than normal chances of continued warm temperatures in the next month. And in spite of Nebraska's first-ever February tornado, the mild winter has no bearing on the level of severe weather we'll see this spring, according to climatologist Dewey. But one note of caution: there's still time for winter. If you need proof, just take a look at Valentine, which in 1995 received 30 inches of snow in one month the month of April.