Back Home: Explaining a strange winter

By Chris Hardie
Posted 2/21/24

A long, long time ago when I worked in newsrooms far, far away, I liked to tell aspiring journalists my definition of news: It’s what people are talking about.

It was justification and …

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Back Home: Explaining a strange winter


A long, long time ago when I worked in newsrooms far, far away, I liked to tell aspiring journalists my definition of news: It’s what people are talking about.

It was justification and rationalization for my penchant of either personally writing or later assigning weather stories. While it was the bane of some reporter’s existence, it was also the delight of a few fellow odd ducks like me who enjoyed the challenge of explaining the whens, whys and hows of our atmospheric condition and what and who it impacted.

While I admit that sometimes my weather stories were the direct result of a slower news cycle, there is no question that one of the biggest stories of this winter is that we haven’t really had one so far.

At this point I could insert statistical information like recent temperature averages between the high and low coming in at 20 degrees warmer or more than average or the lack of snow cover and precipitation.

But you all know that – based simply on being able to go outside without your winter coat. And a glance out the window confirms that there hasn’t been much snow.

The reason for this wacky winter weather is that we are coming out of a strong El Niño pattern -- a warming of the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean -- that followed three years of La Niño, which is unusually long. The “little boy” emerged quickly a year ago and led to a turbulent weather year.

The recent warmup was enough to start the maple sap flowing, which is extremely early. I could see the drips flowing down the bark of the old silver maples that stand in our yard. Theresa Baroun, executive director of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association, told Wisconsin Public Radio last week that she has heard from many other producers throughout the state who have started tapping.

My days of tapping maples are over, but there are other implications to this early warm-up. Road weight limit bans – normally reserved for spring when the frost comes out of the ground – are already in place on many roads which can be damaged by heavy vehicles. 

The warm spell may also impact alfalfa fields. Alfalfa goes into dormancy in the winter but if soil temperatures top 41 degrees, it will begin to wake up. We have a lot of winter left and extreme cold or icy weather could harm the plants.

Perhaps the biggest impact has been on the winter recreation enthusiasts who enjoy snowmobiling, ice fishing or skiing. 

The 101st annual Snowflake Ski Jumping tournament in Westby did take place in early February, but I was struck by a social media photo that showed attendees playing volleyball on a green field with the ski jump in the background. 

The lack of snow has decimated the northern Wisconsin tourism industry. Last winter several feet of snow was on the ground there well into March compared to little to nothing this year.

On the positive side, I have certainly welcomed the break from removing snow and the relief of more frequent propane tank fills. I’ve had my fill of enough double-digit below zero days for the rest of my life.

So what’s next? Officially, El Niño has peaked and will likely end in late spring or early summer, with La Niño returning by the fall. What that means for our weather remains to be seen. 

The oldtimer in me must put a big caveat on all this discussion. Winter is not over and a few years ago we had several big snowstorms well into April. That won’t rescue the tourism business, but don’t put away that snow shovel just yet.


Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at

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