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Blizzard Alvin: Bad, but not the worst on record

Blizzard Alvin was a bad winter storm, but it wasn't the worst one in Grand Forks history. Mark Ewens, National Weather Service data manager, said the storm brought a total of 25.1 inches of snow Dec. 23-26. That included 15.7 inches of snow just...

Snow totals

Blizzard Alvin was a bad winter storm, but it wasn't the worst one in Grand Forks history.

Mark Ewens, National Weather Service data manager, said the storm brought a total of 25.1 inches of snow Dec. 23-26. That included 15.7 inches of snow just on Dec. 25, breaking the 1968 record of 3.0 inches for the date, and 3.3 inches of snow Dec. 24, probably the new record for that date.

Weather service workers are starting to analyze where the storm's snowfall total fits in with Grand Forks records, but it won't be No. 1. A blizzard that Ewens said resembled an "inland hurricane" dumped a total of 27.8 inches on the city March 2-5, 1966.

Even that isn't the highest snow total that has been discovered. A blizzard on Jan. 16-18, 1996, brought 31 inches of snow to the city.

Ewens said it may take some time to go over the data and officially rank Alvin, but he didn't think of it as a small one even if it wasn't the worst. "Regardless of what you say, yeah, that's still a heck of a snowstorm."

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Raising concern

The recent heavy snowfall is causing some residents to compare this winter to past years that resulted in spring flooding, but a look at the numbers shows 2009 differs in several ways.

The 1996-97 winter was the snowiest on record, with 98.3 inches recorded at the weather service office. From October to December, 56.5 inches of snow and 4.53 inches of precipitation fell.

That led to a record Red River crest of 54.35 feet that damaged much of the city.

The 2008-09 winter produced a total of 60.4 inches of snow, with 8.21 inches of liquid precipitation and 30.7 inches of snow between October and December. That led to the third-highest river crest of 49.5 feet.

But that flood was influenced by the wettest fall on record throughout the Red River Valley. Much of the moisture never had a chance to get out of the ground before an early freeze locked it in place, which set the stage for record-breaking spring flooding.

This winter so far was well below those years -- with only 3.14 inches of liquid precipitation and 7.3 inches of snow from October to late December -- until Blizzard Alvin struck. That bumped up the precipitation to 4.12 inches and total snowfall to 32.4 inches.

That gave December a snowfall total of 31.7 inches, the second-snowiest December on record behind the 46.4 inches that fell in 1996.

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Ewens said "normal" snowfall for Grand Forks, based on averages from 1971 to 2000, is about 44.5 inches. But he pointed out it can range from as low as 15 inches to almost 100 inches, and the normal figure is for "an average winter -- whatever that means."

Winter outlook

Early outlooks for this winter predicted below-average precipitation and warmer temperatures in the Northern Plains thanks to an El Nino system.

Ewens said that's typically the case, but it really isn't happening this winter. "We're in that one-third of El Ninos that obviously produce more precipitation, so it makes the outlooks all the more difficult and all the more unsure," he said.

His "best guess" is the region will continue to see below-average temperatures with near-average precipitation. That means Grand Forks could expect another 15 to 20 inches of snow by the end of March.

"Roughly 30 percent of El Nino winters are cold and snowy and, so far, this one is quickly shaping up in that direction," he said.

Still, Ewens said the city had one of its warmest Novembers on record, which "really did help us" with clearing some ground moisture from the spring. And there wasn't much rain in Grand Forks except for an early October storm.

"We're in better shape than we were last year," he said, adding the city didn't have the early cold that froze moisture into the ground in 2008.

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But there are several possible influences on the 2010 flood season. Ewens said base flows in the southern valley are high because Fargo and other areas were wetter than Grand Forks all year, and the full impact of Blizzard Alvin still needs to be assessed.

Another big storm might get people more concerned, but Ewens said he isn't hearing much from residents worried about this spring's flooding chances. The weather service will produce a flooding assessment in late January, and he said every spring is different.

"It all depends on how the rest of the winter goes," he said, "and that's still the big unknown."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: WEATHER
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