Why is Memorial Day weekend weather highly variable?

Memorial Day weekend weather can be absolutely glorious in the state of Wisconsin. But it can be rainy and cold as well. Perhaps no other major holiday suffers such a Jekyll and Hyde split, and there are really good scientific reasons that underlie this duality.

By the end of May, the Northern Hemisphere is just about completely over the prior winter and the cold air that characterized it is almost completely left to very high latitudes, where the longer days act quickly to erode what is left even near the North Pole. The process of “shedding” the cold air from winter sometimes involves the excursion southward of regional cold air vortices in the mid-troposphere, which meteorologists refer to as “cut off” low pressure systems.

If such a cut off low parks itself over the Great Lakes states, the weather is often persistently showery and chilly. This is because the air at about 3 miles above the ground is colder than normal in such a circumstance and, coupled with the relatively warm surface temperatures of late May, the atmosphere is made less stable and the threat of showery weather increases substantially. These cut off lows can persist for several days in a row. It turns out that the seasonal maximum for such cut off lows over our area runs from mid-May to mid-June.

Consequently, Memorial Day weekend can be plagued by the presence of one. Our recent holiday was influenced by the proximity of such a disturbance that continues sliding southeastward toward the Great Lakes states.

Unsettled weather and copious clouds over the Great Lakes on Memorial Day 2024.

Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month. send them your questions at stevea@ssec.wisc.edu or jemarti1@wisc.edu.

Category: Climate, Meteorology, Seasons

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