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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 05 2012

Warm temperatures have many asking: What happened to winter?

FARGO - The warmth couldn’t last forever. Too bad.

Temperatures today are forecast to be much closer to normal after a warm air mass Thursday baked an all-time high here for January of 55 degrees into the record books, according to Rob Kupec, WDAY-TV meteorologist.

Today, the Fargo area could see a high of 37 degrees, with an overnight low of 27, the weather service reports.

That may still seem downright chilly.

The Jan. 5 mark was the earliest a temperature in the 50s has been recorded in Fargo in January, Kupec said. Previously, a 50 hadn’t been recorded until Jan. 8.

The record high for today is 42, Kupec said.

He said the normal high for today is about 18 degrees, with a low around zero.

The turnaround in this year’s weather from last year is striking.

Last year, the area was shivering with nearly 4 feet of snow falling through early January. This year, total snowfall hasn’t hit 4 inches, Kupec said.

Temperatures were so warm Thursday that the Fargo Park District closed outdoor ice skating rinks and warming houses until further notice.

Open water was reported on lakes from Stutsman and Barnes counties down to Richland County, said Doug Leier, a biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Leier said the ice conditions were changing hour by hour.

Normally, people who ice-fish are more worried about plowing a path through drifts to get to their fish houses. But Leier urges fisherfolk to be wary of rotted, melting ice.

“What may have been safe this morning could be deadly by tomorrow,” he said.

Otherwise, Leier said the warm temps are “about the best possible scenario animals could ask for after the past three winters. From deer and pheasants to rabbits and squirrels, man and beast alike are enjoying a warm, snow-free winter.”

The warm temps will continue through the weekend and probably into next week, with a few light snow showers, said Greg Gust, the Grand Forks-based warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

“If we can somehow keep this up through March and April, that would be a good thing. I might have to look for new work,” Gust joked.

On Wednesday, Fargo tied a record high at 41 degrees, Gust said.

Thursday’s previous record was 40 degrees, set in 1984, 1935 and 1898, he said.

Other North Dakota cities also set records Thursday, the weather service reported. As of 4 p.m. Dickinson hit 62 degrees, previous record 53; Minot, 60 degrees (50); Bismarck, 59 degrees (50); Williston, 58 degrees (50); Jamestown, 56 degrees (45); Grand Forks, 47 degrees (42).

In Minnesota, Duluth hit a high of 48, with a previous record of 40; International Falls hit 46 (36); and Brainerd hit 51 (42), the NWS Duluth office reports

This fall, forecasters predicted that a second consecutive year of La Nina would mean a cold, snowy winter. La Niña is a pooling of cold water in the Pacific Ocean that affects the jet stream in the upper atmosphere, Kupec said.

But for some reason, the Arctic air mass that typically forms is smaller this year and has settled mostly in Siberia, Gust said.

Also, a high-pressure ridge over the western U.S. has extended over this part of the country, allowing more warm air into the region. Last year at this time, two-thirds of the nation was in a trough of cold, with 60 to 70 percent of the country covered with snow, Gust said.

This year’s lack of snow cover adds to the warmth, allowing energy from the weaker mid-winter sunlight to warm the soil, roads, trees and houses and radiate to warm the air – conditions that gave Fargo its third-warmest December on record, Kupec said.

But that doesn’t automatically mean we’ll enjoy a snowball effect of continued warm temperatures.

“There are some signs of a change coming, so I wouldn’t get used to it,” Kupec said.

Late winter and spring can still bring several blizzards and snowstorms, and a quick melt could put the area back into a flood-watch mode, Gust and Kupec said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583