Winter came early and with a vengeance in the northern Plains this year. A record-setting snowstorm slammed the Dakotas and western Minnesota for three days last week, in mid-October, before fading over the weekend. North Dakota got hit the hardest. It was a storm that will be hard for many people to forget.
An unusually strong cold front combined with ample Pacific and Gulf of Mexico moisture to create the early season blizzard – yes, wind gusts were as high as 50 to 60 mph in some places. Blowing snow reduced visibility to zero at times, and several tractor-trailers and flatbeds reportedly got stuck in the snow or flipped.
Hundreds of miles of miles of I-29, I-94 and US-2 in North Dakota were closed on Friday, Oct. 11 due to the severe winter weather, which included icy conditions. The North Dakota Highway Patrol tweeted that more than a dozen road rescues happened between Jamestown and Crystal Springs that morning. One was a bus with 42 people on board. Also, dozens of schools in North and South Dakota were closed Friday because of deteriorating travel conditions.
The storm was becoming so dangerous that, on Friday, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum activated the state’s emergency operations plan.
“The extraordinary intensity of this early winter storm threatens to test the limits of local response capabilities across a large portion of our state,” Burgum said in a press release. “We’re committed to a whole-of-government approach to protect human life and property and ensure our citizens have the resources necessary to respond and recover from this crippling event.”
Although North Dakota, nicknamed the Peace Garden State, took the brunt of the storm, it spanned across state and international borders. The storm stretched about 300 miles between Aberdeen, South Dakota, and Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada, and about 230 miles east of Minot, North Dakota, into northwestern Minnesota.
Last week’s snowstorm was truly historic for Bismarck, North Dakota, in a few ways. First, daily record snowfall records were set for Oct. 10, 11 and 12, with accumulations of 7.1, 6.1 and 3.7 inches, respectively. The snowfall on Oct. 10 and 11 now rank as the fourth- and fifth-snowiest October days on record for the capital city.
Ken Simosko, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Bismarck, told FreightWaves that the storm also set a record for the highest three-day single-storm snowfall total for the city – 16.9 inches from Oct. 10 through 12.
Other spots received far more impressive storm totals of 20 to 30 inches. But it’s hard to say if these were historic snowfalls because record keeping in these smaller, remote areas is far more sparse than in relatively bigger cities like Bismarck.
Other cities that got slammed with daily record snow totals during the storm include Grand Forks and Fargo in North Dakota, in addition to Aberdeen and the Rapid City NWS office in South Dakota. However, storm totals in each of these areas were less than half of Bismarck’s.
The early season snowstorm showed no mercy to some farmers and ranchers, especially in North Dakota.
“I’m expecting massive crop losses – as devastating as we’ve ever seen,” said Jon Nelson, a state lawmaker who farms several hundred acres near Rugby in north-central North Dakota.
Unharvested wheat in the region probably will be a total loss, he told the Associated Press.
“A lot of the standing stuff is flattened to the ground,” Nelson added. “It’s shot and some guys are putting their combines away and won’t bring them out again.”
Erika Kenner, who ranches with her parents in Leeds, North Dakota, said she felt helpless Friday as she was unable to check on the family’s herd of several hundred cows due to deep, drifting snow.
“I just hear the wind howling and think of those poor cows out there,” Kenner said. “Cattle are tough but this kind of weather just wears on them.”
Even though the storm has passed, North Dakotans aren’t out of the woods. Periods of rain and snowmelt are forcing the Red River and its tributaries to rise and overflow their banks. The Red River flows along the North Dakota-Minnesota border and is up to minor flood stage in Fargo and East Grand Forks. The river is forecast to rise to moderate flood stage over the next few days, cresting later this week. The flood warning from the NWS is housed inside the FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events platform in the map above.
It’s too early to tell just how much the storm will cost growers across the region or how crop losses may affect truckload volume down the road. But Gov. Burgum said North Dakota was “exploring all possible means to assist the agricultural community,” which was already facing a challenging season because of an “unusually wet late summer and early fall” that caused disease and prevented farmers from harvesting crops.