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Forecasts miss non-storm in northern Red River Valley

The winter storm, maybe even a blizzard, forecast for much of the Red River Valley -- including up to 8 inches of snow predicted for Grand Forks -- never made it that far north.

Truckers at Fargo
Truckers at the Petro Travel Center in Fargo wait out a storm that shut down Interstate 29 into South Dakota Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The interstate was closed late Tuesday due to a winter storm that dumped heavy snow and created whiteout conditions in some areas. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)

The winter storm, maybe even a blizzard, forecast for much of the Red River Valley -- including up to 8 inches of snow predicted for Grand Forks -- never made it that far north.

Parts of South Dakota, southeast North Dakota and much of Minnesota were socked with rain, ice and snow Tuesday and Wednesday, up to 18 inches in some cases, shutting down schools, government offices and causing hundreds of vehicle accidents across Minnesota.

No serious injuries were reported, according to The Associated Press and other news sources.

But north of Highway 200 in North Dakota, little snow fell.

Grand Forks got only a trace of snowfall by 4 p.m. Wednesday at the UND reporting site, according to the National Weather Service, instead of the 2 inches to 5 inches seen as likely late Tuesday -- and 8 inches possible -- by forecasters.


What happened?

"A couple of things," said Brad Hopkins, of the weather service's Grand Forks office.

"There was a lot of convection in thunderstorms down in South Dakota and southern Minnesota and what that does is it robs a lot of moisture that would normally be available for snowfall all the way up here," he said. "So once that happened, that really cut off a lot of the moisture available to the system."

Sioux Falls, S.D., in fact, received 1.41 inches of precipitation mostly falling as rain, a record amount for the date. That broke a 1951 record of 1.19 inches.

Hopkins said another factor also helped.

"We had high pressure move in out of the north and got a little shot of drier air in from Canada," he said. "And usually that creates a little bit of a wall so that any moisture that runs into that gets sucked up like a sponge."

'A judgment'

Although some radio talk show hosts and others in online comments expressed near outrage over apparent misses in the meteorological forecasts lately in the region, Hopkins said it's part of the job.


"When you are dealing with the atmosphere, you are dealing with a fluid. It's not like engineering where a lot of times you can do the math and come up with solid answers," he said. "There are certain things that can happen with the atmosphere that may not be readily noticeable that can affect the whole forecast.

"We make decisions based on what we are seeing with the data we have available, so it's a judgment."

The weather service also has to walk the line between accurately warning the public of any dangerous situations and "crying wolf," Hopkins said. "There is an awareness that as the population increases, there is an increased emphasis on public safety."

A snowstorm earlier in February was blamed for the deaths of at least seven travelers in North Dakota and Minnesota, so the weather can be a life and death deal.

Hopkins said his office does "postmortems," looking at how the weather ends up lining up with what the forecasts said beforehand. That's what was happening Wednesday.

"It can be a learning process," he said. "We go back and review so that in the future if we see a similar situation, we can . . . improve the forecast next time."

There's time for that.

The next several days look to be quiet, weather-wise, and normal or above in temperature.


Snowstorm's impact

Interstate 29 was closed late Tuesday until Wednesday morning from Fargo south to Watertown, S.D., because of icy rain, slush and snow.

More than 280 crashes were reported across Minnesota since Tuesday afternoon, the State Patrol reported Wednesday at noon; 30 of the crashes involved injuries to people and nine involved jack-knifed semi-trucks.

Troopers also responded to an additional 316 incidents of vehicles that slid off roadways and needed a tow.

The heaviest snow was in central Minnesota. About a foot of snow fell at Alexandria and Douglas, and there were about 8 inches at Sauk Centre. As much as 18 inches fell in Kanabec County, between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Even Spirit Mountain ski resort in Duluth had to close Wednesday morning because 40 mph winds made conditions on the slopes dangerous, according to AP.

Xcel Energy said there were widespread power outages across the state, with about 16,000 customers without service.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237 or send email to slee@gfherald.com .

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