As Minnesotans gear up for the holiday season, one question is top of mind: Will we have a white Christmas this year? Historically, the Land of 10,000 Lakes has a 71% chance of having snow on the ground on December 25th. But over the last 125 years, there have been 36 times that Christmas morning dawned with bare ground.
So how often does that happen? Roughly once every three or four years on average, Minnesota ends up with a “brown Christmas.”
The Minnesota DNR has tracked snow depth data since 1899, and about 29% of the time there is no measurable snow cover in the Twin Cities on Christmas Day. The last three brown Christmases occurred in 2021, 2018, and 2015.
Statewide, some locations in far northern Minnesota have a nearly 100% historical probability of a white Christmas.
But the chances decline to 60% or lower in a few parts of southern and western Minnesota, per data from the Minnesota Climatology Working Group.
So while a brown Christmas is uncommon in say, International Falls, it’s a regular occurrence in Rochester or Luverne.
What’s the Least Amount of Snow that’s Fallen in the Twin Cities in December?
December is typically the snowiest month of the year in Minnesota. The 30-year average seasonal snowfall for December is 11.9 inches in the Twin Cities and 13.7 inches in Duluth. But totals can vary widely.
The least amount of snowfall recorded in December in Twin Cities history occurred just last year when only 1.3 inches fell the entire month. December 1936 saw a mere 1.9 inches accumulate.
The record is equally paltry in northeast Minnesota – the Duluth airport reported no measurable snow for the entire month in 1939.
December 1989 was also very low on snow for both Duluth (1.2 inches) and Minneapolis (1.5 inches). So while uncommon, essentially snow-free Decembers have happened before in Minnesota.
Are Warm, Brown Christmases Unusual in Minnesota?
Brown Christmases correlate with warmer-than-average temperatures in late December. While it may dampen hopes for a picture-perfect white Christmas, milder weather this time of year isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary.
The warmest Christmas on record in the Twin Cities reached 51 degrees in 1922. The high temperature that Christmas Day was about 30 degrees above normal. Besides having no snow cover, the local weather bureau described December 25, 1922, as feeling “spring-like.”
More recently, the Twin Cities topped 40 degrees on Christmas 2019, melting most of the snow on the ground. Christmases in 1982 and 2015 were also quite mild, with highs in the 30s and little to no snow cover.
Northern Minnesota tends to see fewer warm Christmases compared to the south, but it has happened before. On December 25th, 1939, Duluth reached 42 degrees.
That followed the city’s least snowy December on record with no measurable snowfall. It was a green Christmas in the Northland that year.
So while a frigid, snowy holiday may be more “traditional” by Minnesota standards, warm Decembers is far from uncommon. Over the last 100+ years, the state has seen plenty of brown, mushy Christmases alongside picturesque white ones.
What’s Behind This Year’s Lack of Snow and Warmth in December?
This December is shaping up to be one of Minnesota’s warmest and least snowy in the past decade. Highs have frequently topped 40 degrees in cities across the state and snowfall has been sparse so far.
Snow cover usually starts accumulating by early or mid-December in central and northern Minnesota. But oddly enough, parts of northwestern Minnesota near the North Dakota border currently have deeper snowpack than the Arrowhead Region. The Twin Cities has received less than three inches of snow the entire month.
According to meteorologists, this unusual warmth and lack of snow for the start of winter is connected to a few factors. An exceptionally strong El Niño climate pattern is deflecting storm systems northward. El Niño winters tend to mean drier, milder weather for the Upper Midwest.
Also, lingering effects from last summer’s extreme heat are delaying the start of a typical Minnesota winter. Ocean temperatures around the world remain much above average.
When so many parts of the globe are significantly warmer than usual, it’s harder for cold air and snowy weather to take hold.
Will This Year’s Brown December Mean Less Snow for the Rest of Winter?
The first month or two of winter doesn’t necessarily determine how snowy the season will end up. For example, December 2021 and 2018 were virtually snow-free in Minnesota. Yet both of those winters rebounded with above-normal snowfall from January onward.
During mild starts to winter, cold air and northern snow packs often build up as sunlight lessens. That “winter weather balloon” eventually pops, as one meteorologist described it. The question is just when it will happen after slow starts like this year.
Minnesota winters run on a certain rhythm tied to daylight and the polar jet stream. Colder months tend to follow mild ones and vice versa throughout the season. So while snow lovers may need to keep waiting this December, historical data suggests winter will arrive in earnest eventually.
Does Minnesota always have a White Christmas?
Minnesota winters are notoriously variable, so predictions are tricky. Historically, Minnesota odes have a White Christmas. But based on the data this year, conditions point toward a high probability of a brown, snow-free Christmas across much of the state.
Time will tell whether winter makes up for lost time with above-average snowfall later on. For now, diehard snow lovers may need to keep dreaming of a white Christmas – hopefully, winter weather returns with gusto to kick off an eventual snowy new year.