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Snow days: Winter storm adds needed moisture to region

Sunday's and Monday's winter storm brought the whole gamut of weather to the Grand Forks area, flashing thunder and lightning over rain, hail and snow.

But hefty as it was at times, it doesn't look like the storm will do much to tip the scales as far as the annual flood watch is concerned. Vince Godon, a meteorologist at the Grand Forks office of the National Weather Service, said it last issued a flood outlook on March 1, before the latest storm reared its head. That earlier forecast predicted a "not too significant" chance for regional flooding as winter slowly gives way to spring.

"The actual snow amount in the snowpack was fairly low," Godon said, adding that the office believes the areas at highest risk for flooding are mainly in northwest Minnesota. The outlook probably hasn't changed much even with the latest batch of precipitation—and, in fact, the storm likely fell into the sweet spot of adding some moisture where it was needed.

Godon said that includes northern Red River Valley locations like Grafton and Walhalla, N.D., which drew some benefit from snowfalls in February and now March.

That was also the case out in Langdon, N.D., said Randy Mehlhoff. He's the director of an agricultural research station there with the North Dakota State University extension service.

"We're pretty dry up here," Mehlhoff said. "Our fields are almost bare, so this latest moisture certainly isn't going to hurt anything."

Mehlhoff said the most recent storm dropped mainly rain instead of snow on the fields in Cavalier County. The area notched a rainfall total about 4-5 inches below average as last fall came to a close—down considerably from a very soggy 2016 in which Langdon got soaked with 31.5 inches of total rainfall, a record for the weather station there.

An average year there might pull in about 18 inches of rain, and, given the current deficit, any precipitation now is a welcome sight. Reflecting on the most recent storm, Mehlhoff said he wouldn't mind if the area got "one or two more of those" before spring planting.

The added moisture might be the biggest result of the Sunday storm, which dumped an average of 4-8 inches of snow across the region. There was a great deal of variation in that, with local totals falling anywhere between 3 and 14 inches.

In Grand Forks, the snowfall bumps the winter snow total up to about 45 inches, just 2 inches greater than this time last year. Ahe average for the city at this time is about 39 inches. For the sake of comparison, the winter that preceded the flood of 1997 packed in 84 inches of snow by this date.

Though the flood outlook is relatively benign for now, Godon said the true course of how things wash out is still dependent on melting patterns.

"The March sun is pretty strong now, so streets will start melting, people's roofs will start melting," he said. But while that sunshine is expected to keep temperatures up above freezing during the day, the nighttime lows are likely to keep dropping back down into the teens, hardening everything back up. That cycle of thawing and freezing helps to ease down the snowpack as opposed to melting it all at once.

"You start to run into problems with runoff when nighttime lows stay above freezing as well, but we're not seeing that yet," Godon said. "It's kind of a slower, prolonged melt, and that's what you want to see."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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