Characterizing winter season severity in the Midwest United States, Part I: Climatology and recent trends

Trent W. Ford, Dagmar Budikova, Jefferson D. Wright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Severe winter weather is a staple of Midwest United States (U.S.) climate and is an important natural hazard that has significant economic and environmental impacts. Winter season severity varies both spatially and temporally in the Midwest, and past studies have documented significant changes in Midwest winter characteristics, including increases in temperature and decreases in snow depth. In this study, we use the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index (AWSSI) to characterize winter severity across the Midwest and assess its variability and change on various spatial and temporal scales during the 1951–2020 period. AWSSI is derived from daily records of snowfall (SF), snow depth (SD), maximum surface air temperature (TMAX), and minimum surface air temperature (TMIN) during the winter season. The daily total AWSSI index value reflects the sum of points accumulated from daily values of each of these four variables surpassing pre-determined thresholds, and the total season sum reflects the overall winter season severity. We find AWSSI provides a unique perspective by which to describe climatological differences in winter season character in the Midwest. Namely, over three quarters of winter season days accumulate points in the northern Midwest, compared to just over half in the southern Midwest. Meanwhile, the relative contribution of extreme winter days to total winter severity is much larger in the southern Midwest than farther north. In addition, we find overall winter season severity has significantly decreased at only a quarter of stations and the frequency of extreme winter days has significantly decreased at only a fifth of stations, despite widespread increases in winter daily maximum and minimum temperature. The results suggest Midwest U.S. winter season severity as described by the AWSSI has not significantly changed over the past 70 years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3537-3552
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Climatology
Issue number6
StatePublished - May 2022


  • Midwest
  • climate change
  • winter severity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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