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> Two severe winters, 1995/96 and 1996/97
post Dec 12 2009, 11:46 PM
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I heard Joe Bastardi comment recently that the winter of 1995/96 was not as severe as people think it was. For much of the nation, this is true; but for the people of northern Minnesota and North Dakota, both 1995/96 and 1996/97 were two of the most severe winters on record, surpassing blockbusters like 1978/79 when you factor in the amount of snow that felt, how early winter began, and just how long it stuck around.

Wildlife populations plummeted. The pronghorn population of North Dakota fell 75% over the winter of 1996/97.

Here in Minnesota, deep snow in both winters killed thousands of deer even as they grouped together and hovered around rural farmsteads and inside cities and towns hoping the humans would feed them.

An unusual snowfall in September was a harbinger of things to come.

By late October, winter was well on its way. We saw snowfalls on the 24th, 29th, and 31st of October leading to an accumulatd snow that lasted from the 29th of October until the 24th of April, making it the longest continuous snowcover of any winter before or since.

The first storm struck on the 3rd of November bringing several inches of snow and sending temps below zero, about 30˚F below normal, the next morning.

After that a series of clippers and another blizzard in late November kept that month one of the coldest Novembers on record.

That winter we saw 10 significant winter storms and temperatures that plummeted below -45˚F on 5 different nights.

While we saw largely normal weather from February 10th through the end of the month, a blizzard at month's end sent temps plummeting for the beginning of March. Not only did March come in like a lion, but it left like one too... and it was a lion all the way through. The month of March was 11˚F below normal which effectively halted any thawing process that usually occurs throughout the month (as average highs rise from 26-44 throughout the month).

April came in like a lion as well with another significant snow storm. At the beginning of April when the last remnants of snow are usually melting away, we had 30" of powdery snow on the ground. April 1996 was 10˚F below average and the month was more March-like than April like. Only 2 days at midmonth were above normal another system on the 26th of April pushed temps right back into the teens again.

That spring was the latest spring ice breakup on record for most northern Minnesota lakes with only 1950 coming close.

The winter of 1996/97 was more focused on North Dakota. But like the winter before, it got off to a very early start with heavy snows in mid and late November.

December was nasty as well with many significant snowfalls and a nasty windstorm on New Years Eve that brought temperatures of below -30˚F the few days before to over 40˚F a few days later. This all turned around again with a blizzard that saw temps plummet again. The worst Arctic cold came in late January with temps falling to -40˚F on two successive mornings. January also saw plenty of snow so that many regions had drifts that covered their houses in the open areas of western Minnesota.

The snow was so bad in North Dakota and western Minnesota that schools were canceled for weeks at a time.. not only because the roads were completely impassable, but many people couldn't get out of their homes.

By February when things began to calm down and the numbness of our minds began to thaw, our focuses turned towards the obvious coming flood threat. The Red River flood in 1996 was one of the worst on record and this winter had been much snowier in the Red River Valley. The worst possible scenario would be for more snow to pile up and then melt all at once.

And that's exactly what it did. In early March, another storm hit dumping several inches of snow and bringing settled snowpacks to nearly 4 feet in regions that rarely see over a foot on the ground at a time.

You have to consider that the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota is one of the flattest regions on earth. When the ground is frozen solid and you melt 4 feet of snow (or an equivalent 4-5" of water) plus whatever rainfall you might receive, it's like getting a 6-7" rainfall on a giant state-sized, flat, asphalt parking lot.

You can imagine the results would be devastating.

By late March after more snow had fallen, the big thaw set in. Temperatures, after barely having thawed throughout the entire winter, shot into the 50s with sunny skies for a week straight. Nearly 4 feet of snow melted between March 27th and April 3rd, 1997.

Area tributaries flooded so fast people didn't have any time to prepare. Small towns like Breckenridge, Minnesota saw record floods that swallowed their entire towns. The Red River of the North, usually a rather small river, maybe 50 feet wide, was over 18 MILES wide in places.

Overland flooding on the flat farm fields turned the entire valley into a massive inland sea, not unlike the massive Lake Agassiz that created the valley thousands of years ago.

While the tributaries that feed the Red (which is a liberal term here... more like the entire landmass that turned into a sea and slowly just floated towards the Red) were breaking records, a massive storm system moved in on April 6th-8th..

It dumped over 2 inches of rain over the region before dumping over a foot of snow and sending temperatures below 0˚F. Everything froze solid. People couldn't even evacuate from their homes.

The National Guard was left rescuing people by helicopter and hovercraft.

After the the thaw resumed, all the water gushed into the Red. Since the river flows north and follows the spring thaw, the flood will just tend to get bigger and bigger and bigger the further down river you go. It did its worst in Grand Forks, ND.

Even after emergency crews worked around the clock with area residents to raise the levies and dikes, it was no good. The Red River, nearly 4 feet higher than it had ever been, broke through the dikes and flooded nearly the entire city of 50,000 residents. Only a couple days later, a transformer caught fire and a large swath of the historic downtown burned to the ground. In one of Mother Nature's cruelest ironies, the fire fighters were helpless to do anything to stop it because of the mud filled flood waters surrounding the buildings.

It was a harsh winter for wildlife and for the people that live in the region. But Grand Forks learned its lesson. It immediately began ambitious planning and subsequently rebuilt portions of the city. They removed hundreds of homes that were closest to the river, turning it into park land with lots of trees that diffuse and slow the water, reducing wear on the dikes, which were built to a height of 60 feet, 5 feet above the record crest which can easily be expanded a further several feet with minimal effort.

Since 1997, despite two significant floods in 2006 and 2009 that were both top 10 events, the city was high and dry.

Fargo, North Dakota's largest city has recently begun talking about following Grand Forks in raising its dikes after the river rose to record high levels, shattering the 102 year old records in spring 2009.
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post Dec 13 2009, 12:56 AM
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95-96 was a colder than normal winter here in the deep south (south Louisiana-30 degrees latitude) as well, especially the month of January and early February. We had several mornings where the temperature was in the teens, which is very unusual for this far south. In fact, I'm pretty certain it hasn't happened here since. I remember one day at the end of January with a dusting of snow, but not much. Still, that is fairly rare this far south. The winter of 96-97 was not nearly as cold, but it was notable for a significant ice storm in January.
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North Dakota Lif...
post Dec 24 2009, 02:05 PM
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I have lived in Grand Forks since I was 3 years old and I remember both those winters like they happened yesterday. I was a student at the University of North Dakota and during the 1995-96 winter, we had a snow storm/Arctic outbreak at the end of January/beginning of February 1996. There also was a big hockey series between UND and the University of Minnesota that same weekend. School was called off the Friday of that week, but the games went on! True story. smile.gif

I remember fighting snow drifts and sub-zero cold during the 1996-97 winter. It started the middle of November with a huge winter storm and another seven storms followed over the course of the winter. Then came April and the ice storm/blizzard that destroyed the power grid for NE North Dakota. Some small towns and farms didn't get power back for one to two weeks!

The Flood of 1997 came next and I was evacuated for about a week to Minot, ND. Many people lost everything they owned. I did not, but an experience like that changes you forever. I still remember the sirens, the long lines of cars at the gas stations as people fled town, the tears and the sorrow of losing the fight that everyone was determined to win. I remember the NFL draft was that weekend and during normal times, I would be watching it and trying to figure out who my Minnesota Vikings would pick. Not this time.

It was all the elements of winter coming together in the same place at the same time.

North Dakota Lifer

Grand Forks: North Dakota's "Dry Air Snow Shield" Leader!!!

"North Dakota...if our weather doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger!!!"

University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks Hockey

NCAA National Champions: 1959, 1963, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000, 2016.

A Minnesota Vikings fan 4-Life!!! Bandwagoners need not apply!
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post Feb 12 2010, 12:13 AM
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I remember 96/96 vividly. It started snowing in October and didn't let up until April. Duluth broke there snowfall record up near 130". I hope to see that again in my lifetime.
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