Data visualization and storytelling


Which American city has the worst winter weather?

As the polar vortex hits the northern United States, we dig into the data

This week, a polar vortex of frigid, arctic air engulfed the northern continental United States. In cities like Minneapolis and Milwaukee, temperatures neared -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34.4 degrees Celsius). The US Postal Service even decided to suspend service in parts of ten states, citing the dangerous cold and concerns for carrier safety.

Although the severity of the cold is out of the ordinary, the recent weather is a perfect excuse for people in the Northeast and upper Midwest to engage in one of their favorite pastimes – arguing about whose winter is the worst.

Instead of joining in on the fun, I thought I’d see if we could settle the debate once and for all, so I pulled snowfall and temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) going back to 2000 for four of the American cities which most laud their own winter credentials: Boston, Chicago, New York and Minneapolis. After cleaning and analysing the NOAA data, I used Flourish to quickly visualize what I found.

Who gets the most snow?

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I started off by looking at which city sees the most snowfall every year, and the results are rather inconclusive. For instance, snowfall in New York is most consistently the lowest, but it did get more snow than Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis in 2016. Snowfall is more even among the other three cities, but Boston had a huge snowstorm in 2015 which, if we were considering total snowfall across the entire decade, would put it comfortably in front of the other two.

What about by month?

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Because the year by year snowfall data was ambiguous, I thought I’d also look at the totals month by month, and I found that Boston gets more snow than the other cities in what might be considered the heart of the winter, January and February, but Minneapolis and Chicago get more snow in the earlier and later months, like November and April.

Where is it below zero most often?

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This one isn’t even really close. Between 2000 and 2018, the temperature in Minneapolis fell below zero degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8 degrees Celsius) almost 350 times. That’s almost an entire year. People in Minneapolis have spent one out of the last 18 years in sub-zero temperatures. One-eighteenth of their time in the new millenium. Chicago comes in a distant but definitive second, which might explain why those two cities get snowfall earlier and later than Boston – they’re colder.

And when you put it all together?

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I’m sorry New York, but the data has proven what the rest of us already knew: Your winter is not that bad. As for the other three, it really depends on what matters to you. Minneapolis is by far the coldest, but Boston often gets more snow than the other two. Chicago is somewhere in the middle in terms of both snow and cold, but is that best of both worlds or best of no worlds? I suppose that’s for you to decide.