For the Midwest, El Nino is an amigo

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Snow returned Thursday to parts of the Upper Midwest, which shouldn’t be surprising for late February. But this winter, harsh weather has been a rarity, thanks to El Ni¤o.
A powerful storm moved into the western Dakotas on Wednesday, dumping a foot of snow in some areas and stranding motorists. Rain in the eastern Dakotas started changing to snow Thursday, and mild temperatures that reached the 50s in Minnesota were expected to drop into the 30s by Friday.
Still, much of the center of the country has escaped the deadly effects of El Ni¤o storms and instead is basking in rare winter warmth.
“I’m laughing at my good fortune,” Ben Connelly, a Minneapolis bicycle messenger, said Wednesday. “It’s much, much, much more pleasant than a normal winter.”
The same pleasant situation existed a bit to the west, in the northern Plains — until midweek.
With temperatures topping 50 degrees, more people golfed at a Lennox, S.D., course in one hour Tuesday than in all of last February. One of the golfers, Jessica McKinnis of Sioux Falls, S.D., wore a sweat shirt that read, “Let it snow someplace else.”
El Ni¤o, the inexplicable warming of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador that has upset weather patterns for much of the world, has fueled killer storms, waves and tornadoes in California and the South.
But the weather pattern has kept Arctic air from pushing into northern parts of the country. The result: The frost belt is not so frosty this year.
In Chicago, birds sang and the grass already was starting to turn green Wednesday, when the temperature reached 52. People were golfing instead of snowmobiling two weeks ago in Buffalo, N.Y.
Climatologists in Minnesota and Wisconsin say this winter could end up being the warmest on record, breaking the average reading of about 24 degrees set in the winter of 1930-31. December through February usually averages about 16 degrees.
But the balmy days of winter have not left everyone happy.
Mark Dorn depends on the traditional fierce winters as an ice fishing guide on Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota, watched the ice form two weeks late and break up six weeks early.
“I would say overall our winter business was down 50 percent,” Dorn said Wednesday. “It’s deteriorating faster than any other time I have seen in 20 years.”
On Lake Koshkonong in Wisconsin, the icecap went out this week, two weeks ahead of the earliest meltdown since record-keeping started in 1947.
Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers were shut down, too, as state conservation officers closed trails in Minnesota and Wisconsin because of lack of snow.
At least the costs of winter dropped. Natural gas customers saved $30 a month, and electric bills dropped an average $4.50 per home for December and January for customers of Northern States Power, which serves Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and upper Michigan.
Steve Wenstrom, a gas station owner in Beach, N.D., on the border with Montana, says his town has been almost tropical, compared to usual mornings of 20 or 30 below.
Nature offered Wenstrom a reality check Wednesday morning when he awoke to 8 inches of snow. But he was optimistic: “It’s only 30 above now. It’s not going to last long.”