January usually brings Upper Michigan some of its coldest weather as arctic blasts sweep to the southeast across North America. This was not so in 1987. A substantial El Nino event developed in the equatorial Pacific and led to a mild, dry winter season over the Upper Midwest.
The cold season started quickly as El Nino winters often seem to do. Record cold was felt across the Upper Peninsula during November. It reached zero at the National Weather Service (NWS) site near Negaunee November 11, 1986. Two days later, the temperature fell to 5 below??the earliest subzero reading on record. But then as December wore on, in typical El Nino fashion, winter broke. Mild, cloudy, virtually snow less weather held through Christmas into early 1987. Then instead of cooling down, it warmed up. Record highs in the 40s were set at the NWS for three consecutive days ending on January 14 with a high of 41. In Ironwood, the maximum reached 49 degrees. Normally snowy Houghton also had thawing weather with a record high of 38.
December came in 3.4 degrees above average, while January was nearly six above normal. February warmed even further relative to average, with an 8.6-degree anomaly. Through all the mild weather, snowfall was light. In fact, the heaviest snowstorm during the winter of 1986-87 came on the first and second of April when 11.2 inches fell. The snow quickly disappeared though as warm spring weather quickly followed. By April 9, 1987, temperatures hit the 70s across much of the Upper Peninsula. The winter of 1986-87 (as well as the following spring) is remembered as one of the warmest and driest in recent times.
The difference between 1987 and this year is stark. Look at the upper level pattern in 1987 in the midst of the mid-January warm spell and compare it to the upper level pattern today (Images 1 and 2). In 1987, a big ridge covered much of central North America and led to unseasonable warmth. Today a deep trough is situated in the same spot. Like 1987, this pattern has been in place for much of the winter and has led to the exact opposite temperature regime of the winter 27 years ago.