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The Whitest of Christmases and Other Christmases Past

Thu, Dec  24, 2015 - By William R Deedler

Original article by William R Deedler, National Weather Service White Lake/Pontiac MI on Monday Dec 20th, 2010, and updated in 2015.

Frequently during the Christmas Season, meteorologists are asked; Are we going to have white Christmas? Usually the chance of a white Christmas across all of Southeast Lower Michigan is around 50 percent. Generally, it is agreed among meteorologists that in order to "officially" have a white Christmas, an average of an inch of snow must cover the ground, but not necessarily have to fall on Christmas.

The outlook for a white Christmas this year is lower than average given the sustained warm temperatures expected into the Christmas holiday. Officially, an inch of snow must cover the ground at 7am on Christmas morning for it to be deemed a "white" Christmas.

Historical probability of a White Christmas in the US

Looking over historical weather records of Christmases past since 1900, a wide range of weather conditions were found. While most people would like to believe that Christmas in the Detroit area should be snowy-white and picturesque, more often than not, they're not. Over the past 115 (including 1900) Christmases in Detroit, 54 (47%) have been what would be called "white" with an inch or better of snow on the ground. Keep in mind however, these records are for Detroit; farther north in Flint, the chance of a white Christmas jumps to 56 percent, while in Saginaw and the Thumb region it rises to 61 percent.

Whitest

Based on the Detroit records, the Santa award for the "whitest" (most snow on the ground) and also the second snowiest Christmas (snow falling on Christmas) goes to the Christmas of 1951! Just over a foot /13 inches/ of snow was recorded on ground late Christmas day with 6.2 inches of the snow falling on Christmas. Temperatures held well below freezing (HI-26/LOW-18), so what snow did fall, remained. A close second to the "whitest" Christmas, occurred the Christmas after the big stock market crash in 1929. Eleven and a half inches of snow was measured December 25th, 1929 at Detroit but only three tenths /.3/ fell on Christmas. Recently, the Christmas of 2000 was very white indeed, but as to how much of a white Christmas (snow depths) is where the confusion came in. Let me elaborate...officially at Detroit Metro Airport, just six inches of snow was recorded on the ground at 7AM Christmas Day. However, just about anywhere west/north and in the city of Detroit itself, amounts were considerably higher with generally 8 to at least 15 inches. Here at the National Weather Service in White Lake, 15 inches was observed on the ground Christmas morning. No additional snow fell on Christmas Day (nor was anymore really wanted with the surplus already at hand). In any event, for Detroit and surrounding communities, the six inches at Detroit Metro Airport is the official snow depth used for the area.

Snowiest

The snowiest Christmas (most snow falling on Christmas), occurred in 1915 when 6.4 inches fell with a snow depth of seven inches on the ground. The timing of this snowfall was impeccable for Christmas with it actually starting Christmas Eve around sunset. Then, it continued to snow through the night into Christmas day. Actually, even more than the 6.4 inches fell from the entire storm with an additional 1.6 inches falling on Christmas Eve. This gave a snowstorm total of eight inches. A little light rain did mix with the snow during the forenoon hours of Christmas but with a high temperature of only 33, it did little to mar the "Christmas card" scene.

Speaking of "Christmas card" scenes, another heavy wet snowfall blanketed the area just after the turn of the century early on Christmas in 1901. The scene is described in the historical weather books as follows;

"Night of the 24 - 25 cloudy; moist snow continued, heaviest between hours of 1:30 and 4:30 am, ended at 6 am. amount of precipitation .62 inches. The street cars ran all night to keep the tracks open. the snow adhered to trees etc, and made a very beautiful scene. Depth of snow on ground at 8 am, 5.5 inches".

This "Norman Rockwell Christmas scene" was further enhanced by a heavy coating of frost deposited on the buildings and windows Christmas Eve due to the moisture-laden air. But just like memories of some Christmases past, this majestic Christmas scene quickly faded (melted) during the day as temperatures climbed to 41 degrees, leaving just slush and water.

The Christmas's of 2002 and 2003 was similar to both of the white Christmases mentioned above (1901 and 1915). Here again, snow started falling Christmas Eve and lasted into at least part of, if not all of Christmas Day. Last Christmas, snowfalls ranged from at least an inch in the far southeast corner of Lower Michigan to as much as six inches across Detroit's northern suburbs, extending northward across Flint and Saginaw. Christmas 2002 total snow at Detroit Metro Airport was measured at 6.4 inches for both days (Christmas Eve and Christmas) with 3.4 of it falling Christmas. Across all of Southeast Lower Michigan snowfalls generally ranged from four to seven inches. A picture perfect Christmas was created both years with the freshly fallen snow. Like the Christmas snowstorms of 1901 and 1915, the snow Christmas 2002 was also somewhat heavy and wet with high temperatures in the lower 30s and lows only in the mid 20s.

Slushiest

Probably one of the slushiest and sloppiest Christmas Days happened in 1973. What started out as a white Christmas with a heavy 7 inch snow cover, quickly melted to a meager 2 inch slush mess by nightfall. To add insult to injury, it rained nearly a half an inch during the day.

Wettest

The wettest Christmas on record occurred in 1945 when 1.16 inches of rain fell. The rain actually began Christmas Eve as a light freezing rain and continued freezing until nearly dawn on Christmas, when the temperature pushed above freezing. Until the ice melted, a few tenths of an inch of ice coated everything by Christmas dawn. Needless to say, walking and driving early the Christmas of 1945 was treacherous but Santa was in and out of town in a flash!

Warmest

Without a doubt, and still in the memories of long term inhabitants of Southeast Lower Michigan, is the warmest Christmas on record, the Christmas of 1982. It was as though the whole area was shipped to Florida for the holiday! The official record high at Detroit was 64 degrees, while Flint did one degree better at 65! These readings are about normal for...Tallahassee, Florida. Scenes of shirt sleeved people with shorts running or riding bikes, instead of visions of sugar plums, made the Christmas of 1982 to some Michigan Christmas traditionalist, very hard to take. This spring-like day was complete with scattered showers and, of all things, thunderstorms!

Coldest

Ironically, the bitterest cold Christmas came just a year later in 1983! Maybe a payback from Mother Nature for the warm weather we were treated to, the Christmas past? The temperature plummeted Christmas eve to a record low of -9 at Detroit and was accompanied by a stiff west wind averaging 25 to 30 mph, creating life threatening wind chills at times of near 40 below zero! Santa certainly brought the North Pole with him the Christmas of 1983, when he made his rounds very early that morning. In addition to the record low Christmas eve, another record low /-10/ was established during the very early morning hours of Christmas.

These Christmases past discussed are more the extreme than the norm across extreme Southeast Lower Michigan. But they do show the variable weather that can occur at Christmas (or any other time for that matter). The "normal" (or average) highs in extreme Southeast Lower Michigan Christmas Day are in the lower 30s, while lows average in the upper teens.

As Christmas Day approaches, stay tuned to the NWS forecasts and NOAA Weather Radio for the latest weather updates for the holiday week.