TRAVERSE CITY — Fluffy, dime-sized snowflakes swirled and fell over Traverse City into the weekend — the last fresh layer the region will see for a while.
A powdery, crunchy layer of snow remains settled over yards, roofs and city streets, joined for the past two weeks by bitter colds and cutting winds. But that’s set to change — at least for a few days.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Andy Sullivan said the next several days will prove balmy, with highs in the mid- to high-30s. Still, it comes with no precipitation on the map.
It keeps the season an outlier — normally, Traverse City’s snowfall to-date measures about 82.7 inches by this time in February.
But only 37.9 inches have fallen on the top of the mitten this year, Sullivan said.
It’s unusually low.
“That’s pretty significant,” Sullivan said. “And that’s been the case over most of the lake effect areas — we haven’t had a lot of lake effect (snow).”
Outside of shorelines like the Grand Traverse region, the rest of Michigan has seen a mostly normal season, Sullivan added. Storm tracks have stuck to the south, drawing storm-forming moisture south with it.
Generally, lacking precipitation can lead to dry springtime soil, lowered river and stream levels and, in extreme cases, water shortages, according to the NASA-sponsored Classroom of the Future program. Too-high levels can spur inland flooding along riverbanks and disrupt stream flow as well.
But with the mitten state’s lake levels dancing along all-time highs and an abundance of natural freshwater, the odd dry spell hardly impacts state residents.
The region’s reputation for heavy snows comes in when cold, arctic air blows down through Canada and across the Great Lakes, Sullivan said. Passing over the warmer waters sees the cold front swell into moisture-heavy clouds, and it creates instability — thus, the “lake effect.”
The unpredictable and fast-forming storms can hit without much notice, or add a few inches onto an already-coming storm, Sullivan said.
While few may miss unexpected snow-ins and bitter days, such an unseasonal season can prove cause for concern.
Abnormalities in current weather trends, according to an Environmental Law and Policy report, are exacerbated by the planet’s warming.
Right now, Lake Michigan is a few inches behind where it was this time last year. Still, lake levels sit a solid two feet above average, and when compared to record lows from January 2013, the waters reach a good five feet higher.
Such fluctuations prove common throughout the region’s history, according to a Michigan Radio report on Lake Superior. But these modern ups-and-downs prove more mercurial — with highs higher and lows lower. They also go from high to low more quickly, according to the report, alongside an increase in other weather extremes.
Such volatility can create challenges for the lakes’ natural cycles, said Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan Basin coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Division.
Those include life cycles of many lake tenants, from chinook salmon to yellow perch.
Wesley doesn’t anticipate any drastic impact from this year alone — most fish manage to adapt to Michigan’s sometimes-unpredictable weather, changing spawning times and spots.
“That being said, some species do real well with a very hard winter, and some do not,” he added. “Usually if we have a very hard winter with good ice cover, whitefish, cisco and lake trout do real well.”
The thought, Wesley said, is that those species spawn on shallow, rocky reefs. Ice cover protects their eggs from predators and currents alike.
Other species, like bass, pike and walleye, do better with mild winters, he added.
It’s hard to say with a season like this, however, where the lakes have endured both ends of the spectrum.
The impacts could be notable — or insignificant, Wesley said.
Assessments done in the summertime will bring more information about the season’s impact.
But it’s not all bad, Sullivan said.
The mitten state’s past two winters have brought precipitation totals well above normal, he said, contributing unduly to high lake levels.
“We gotta give the lakes a little time to recover back to where they, really, are normally at,” Sullivan said. “Even inland lakes have been above normal, and there’s all kinds of issues with that as well.”
He added that a drop in lake levels could be a positive impact of the trend, and while he said there could be impacts with the year’s thinner snowpack, they’re unlikely to be major.
Mt. Holiday’s skiers seem quite content with the snowpack — and as far as Executive Director Nate Noyes said, it’s been great for business.
Earlier in the season, mild temperatures and lack of natural precipitation left the nonprofit ski hill struggling. The hill’s snow-making capacity simply can’t measure up to those of massive, multi-hill resorts, and cold days are vital for ideal snow production.
A heavy snow followed by a streak of chilly days means the hill is up and running — and likely to last.
“It has been fantastic,” Noyes said. “We are 100 percent with our snowmaking right now, the hill is open, and business has been very good.”
It means he and the hill’s staff can finally take a breath — even if a warm-up sticks around, the temperatures forecast won’t hit too hard, Noyes added.
“Right now, we’re in a good spot.”