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New index confirms it: This winter is miserable

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Work crews clear ice off the road as water spews from a broken water main in Detroit. A new winter “misery index” confirms that this has been one of the harshest winters — especially for Detroit.

DETROIT — A new winter "misery index" confirms what many Americans in the Midwest and East know in their all-too-chilled bones: This has been one of the harshest winters of our lifetimes.

And nowhere has been hit harder, relatively, than Detroit.

Sure Chicago, Indianapolis and Philadelphia and Moline, Ill., are in the midst of their third-most-extreme winters in more than 60 years. But Detroit, a city that is trying to crawl out of bankruptcy, is also slogging through what so far is the most extreme winter it has had since Harry Truman was president, at least according to a winter extremity index created by National Weather Service meteorologist Barbara Mayes Boustead.

The index is based on cold temperatures and snowfall. And so far, Detroit has had more than 6 1/2 feet of snow and 100 days when the thermometer plunged below the freezing mark. Of two dozen cities studied, Detroit alone is in the middle of its harshest winter since 1950.

In better weather, downtown Detroit's riverfront walk bustles with bicyclists, runners, walkers and people watchers. Lunchtime on Tuesday wasn't better weather. With temperatures in the low 20s and a biting wind, Paul Welch was practically alone on his 2-mile trek. He was mostly dressed for the weather, with a fleece pullover, ski jacket and gloves — but no hat. Consequently, his face was pink.

"My ears are freezing," said Welch, 52, who works nearby at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan's headquarters. "I didn't think it was going to be quite this windy when I got out here but ... I found out, yeah, it's pretty bad."

Boustead, a former Detroit-area resident who now works in Omaha, Neb., created the index a couple of years ago to judge the severity of winters. Omaha, by the way, is the only city in two dozen metro areas that Boustead examined that is not having an "extreme" or "severe" winter. It's merely average.

Boustead uses daily high and low temperatures and daily and accumulated snowfall to come up with a winter index that's equivalent to the way meteorologists categorize hurricanes and tornadoes. Officially, it is called the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index.

"I personally would call this a misery index," Boustead said.

But to co-creator Steve Hilberg, the index measures "awesomeness."

"I embrace winter rather than hating it," said Hilberg, a meteorologist who works at the Midwest Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Ill.

New York, Milwaukee and Duluth are in the midst of their fourth-harshest winters. Also having top-10 harshest winters are Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota; Louisville, Ky.; Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; and Cheyenne, Wyo.

The idea is to put winter in context. This winter seems unusually harsh because it has been a while since the late 1970s and early 1980s when severe winters were far more frequent. People have short memories.

Plus, for almost three-quarters of the places studied, the winter of 2011-12 was the mildest on record, Boustead said.

But why Detroit?

Just bad geography and luck. Much of the cold and snow this winter is because of a change in the jet stream that has funneled frigid air south from the Arctic "right down the alley" through Detroit, Hilberg said.

The winter index keeps going, until the cold, snowy weather stops. And that's at least a couple of weeks away, according to forecasts.

"We're going to push that index a little bit higher," Boustead said. "Let's see how much higher we can go."


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