Section 7: Winter

Winter is North Dakota’s longest season. Even though the calendar shows the first day of winter as the Winter Solstice on December 21 or 22, the winter season in North Dakota is usually in full swing by that time.

In December, the sun stays fairly low in the sky because of the way the earth is tilted on its axis, so the state has only about eight hours of daylight each day. December has the least amount of solar radiation of any month.

Temperatures often stay below freezing (below 32 degrees) for long stretches of the winter. During the winter of 1935–36, the temperature in some parts of the state stayed below freezing for 96 days (over three months). Most winters, however, have more changeable weather when some days are cold and other days are milder.

On the average, temperatures in the northeastern part of the state are colder than they are in the southwest. Grand Forks, in the northeast, usually has temperatures quite a bit colder than does the southwestern town of Bowman.

January is usually the coldest month in North Dakota. The average January temperature ranges from two degrees above zero in the northeast to 17 degrees above zero in the southwest. It is not unusual for the temperature to fall below zero and sometimes stay there for many days.

North Dakota at each solstice

Figure 83.  North Dakota at each solstice. (SHSND-ND Studies)

In the northern part of the state in 1936, the temperature stayed below zero every night and day for six weeks straight, and the temperature for January and February that year averaged 13 degrees below zero. In 1982, Bismarck had over six weeks
of nightly zero and subzero temperatures. On the other hand, January, 2006, was the warmest January on record in many areas of the state, with temperatures never falling below zero the entire month!

February often continues the weather pattern from January, but sometimes it has unusual highs and lows of its own. The coldest day ever recorded in North Dakota was on February 15, 1936, when the temperature plunged to 60 degrees below zero at Parshall. This is the lowest temperature ever reported east of the Rocky Mountains.

Winter in North Dakota

Figure 84.  Winter in North Dakota: Ice fishing is a popular winter sport for many North Dakotans. (ND Tourism)

Sometimes North Dakota is treated to a chinook which brings mild temperatures to the area for a short time. A chinook is a warm, dry wind blowing in from the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. On February 18, 1918, the morning temperature at Granville was 33 degrees below zero. By afternoon, it had risen to 50 degrees above zero, a rise of 83 degrees in just a few hours because of the chinook. A chinook is not a sign of spring, though; sometimes a chinook is followed by even colder weather.

Even though North Dakota may be cold in the winter, deep snow is not usually found in the state. In fact, North Dakota gets less snow than any other state along the Canadian border going east. All states west of North Dakota have large areas that get much more snow than North Dakota gets.

Only about 20 days of the winter have snowfall that can be measured, and the average yearly snowfall for the state ranges from 30 to 38 inches. The average depth of the snow on the ground ranges from nine to 15 inches. During cold weather, the snow is usually light and fluffy, and it blows around a lot.

Wind Chill Index

Figure 85. Wind Chill Chart. (National Weather Service)

Wind is a major factor in North Dakota’s winters. The average wind speed is greater in the winter than it is in the summer. Wind can also make the temperature feel much colder than it actually is. A Wind Chill Index is a chart that uses temperature and wind speed to measure how cold the air feels and how long it takes skin to freeze. For example, if the temperature is zero and the wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour, the wind chill is 26 degrees below zero, and skin will freeze in 30 minutes. Knowing what the wind chill is helps people know how to dress properly for the weather.

Some people think of North Dakota as having a lot of blizzards, but actually the state only averages two to three blizzards per year. According to the U.S. National Weather Service, two factors must be present in order for a winter storm to be classified as a blizzard. A blizzard exists when: (1) winds blow at 35 miles per hour or more; and (2) there is enough snow in the air to reduce visibility to one-fourth mile or less.

North Dakota blizzards are caused by low-pressure systems, or lows, coming from the Rocky Mountains either in Colorado or Alberta (a Canadian province).

Winter in North Dakota

Figure 86.  Winter in North Dakota: Skiing at Huff Hills near Mandan, North Dakota. (ND Tourism)

Many lows come from those two areas during the winter, but only a few of the lows develop into blizzards. Storms from Colorado lows are more common in November and March, and those from Alberta are more common in December, January, and February.

The blizzards coming from Alberta lows are usually considered more dangerous than those from Colorado. There are two reasons for this: (1) They move more quickly and may strike unexpectedly. (2) Arctic subzero temperatures that come with them are so dangerous. These fast-moving storms are sometimes called “Alberta Clippers.”

Blizzards can be life-threatening storms, so North Dakotans are wise to pay attention to winter weather conditions and listen to warnings when making travel plans. When the sun is shining and the temperature is mild, it does not seem possible that a raging blizzard can suddenly hit.

Winter in North Dakota

Figure 87.  Winter in North Dakota: Snowmobiling is a favorite winter activity. (ND Tourism)

Before the days of modern weather forecasting and modern communication, people who lived on the prairie were very frightened by blizzards. They had no way of knowing when a storm would strike. Even on a warm winter day, an Alberta Clipper could suddenly bring white-out conditions and bitterly cold temperatures. If people were caught away from their homes at these times, they could quickly become lost and freeze to death. A fast-moving blizzard that struck the Red River Valley in March of 1941 left 39 people dead.

In 1966, an early March blizzard with heavy snow and winds up to 70 miles per hour hit the state. Almost three feet of snow fell in some parts of the state. The fierce winds piled the snow into huge drifts that blocked roads, stranded travelers, and buried cars, trees, and even buildings in some places. The blizzard, which lasted four days, was responsible for five deaths in the state. Thousands of cattle were also found frozen to death.

Today meteorologists can predict storms much better because of modern technology. People are also able to get this information quickly by TV, radio, cell phone, computer, and other modern means of communication. These factors are life-saving, because people can be warned when a blizzard is on its way.

The winter of 1996–97 was unusual both for the number of blizzards and also for the amount of snow dropped in North Dakota. Eight blizzards that winter caused the deaths of thousands of cattle and other farm animals. Fargo, Bismarck, and many other areas of the state got over 100 inches of snow during that winter.

Blizzard of 1966

Figure 88.  Blizzard of 1966. This train was buried in the four-day blizzard in early March 1966. (SHSND C1469)