Winter in North Dakota

Winter can be wonderful, woeful, belligerent and downright cold especially in North Dakota.

When it comes to winter North Dakota is rivaled by very few states in terms of border-to-border blasts of weather, north to south and east to west. The entire state is situated to annually receive the worst weather winter has to offer, and it often does.

There are other winter states that lay claim to lengthy, snowy and cold winters too Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota to name a few. Still, there is no escaping the cold, hard facts that North Dakota winters often rank as some of the most severe anywhere in the United States. Other than heading south, far south, there’s not much relief from winter’s elements for several months. True, Dickinson has much warmer average winter temperatures than Bottineau, but traveling to one of the state’s most southern destinations does little to alleviate winter woes.

The plains of Dakota are not made for blocking bone-chilling wind that swirls and piles snow into immense drifts. Other areas in the northern climate and those at much higher elevations are known to receive more snow than what North Dakotans can usually expect, but there are other factors that can make winter the most imposing season of the year. Mix in temperatures that are often below zero and you have weather that is not only adverse, but life-threatening.

The National Weather Service uses a Windchill Temperature index to describe the combination of cold temperatures and dangerous winds. The WCT is almost macabre in nature, calculating the dangers to human flesh exposed to winter elements. The best protective clothing available is often necessary to avoid the dangers presented by cold and wind.

A temperature of zero with a 15 mile per hour wind is not uncommon during the winter months in North Dakota, perhaps even quite tolerable to many residing in the state. However, warns the NWS, exposed skin can freeze in 30 minutes in such conditions. In colder temps and higher winds the chance of frostbite increases dramatically. Sometimes forecasts warn of death due to exposure. Stranded motorists are at particular risk. Those who opt to abandon their vehicles in the hopes of reaching shelter elsewhere are often found frozen to death mere yards away.

Weather forecasts, particularly those that warn of sub-zero temperatures and biting wind chills, should be taken seriously. Failure to do so can result in frostbite, hypothermia or death.

Wind chill effects animals too. Many pets are not bred for the extreme weather often experienced in North Dakota and can suffer from exposure. Wind chill rates heat loss from exposed skin. Wind chill does not effect inanimate objects. For example, if the air temperature is minus 10 and the wind is gusting from 20 to 25 mph, the temperature of a vehicle parked outdoors will not drop below minus 10.

In North Dakota winter officially begins on Dec. 21 each year. It is so designated because it is also the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight, just 8 hours and 20 minutes. For the remainder of the winter the amount of daylight increases each day.

Officially winter ends March 21, which is the first day of spring. By that date the amount of daylight increases to 12 hours, 10 minutes. The longest period of daylight of the year, June 21, marks the beginning of summer. On that day Minot receives 16 hours, 5 minutes of daylight almost double that of the first day of winter.

Despite what some snow shovelers may believe, when it comes to snowfall North Dakota does not receive more than anybody else. While no apologies are needed, a few facts prove interesting.

Minot’s record winter snowfall total was 100 inches in 1950. The average for the city is 46.1 inches. However, as recently as 2010-11 snowfall totals of more than 100 inches were recorded at various points in North Dakota. Minot’s record for snowfall in a single month is 27 inches set in April 1984.

Surprisingly, snowfall in Anchorage, Alaska differs little from North Dakota. The Anchorage record snowfall for a single winter occurred in 2011-12 at 134.5 inches. The least is 30.4 inches in 1957-58. The greatest single day snowfall in Anchorage is 22 inches on March 17, 2002.

The Black Hills of South Dakota is famous for spectacular scenery and monster snow events that completely drift over anything North Dakota has produced. Lead, S.D., located near the Wyoming state line, received a whopping 364.7 inches of snow during the winter of 1993-94. Lead’s single day record snowfall is a 52-inch dump on March 14, 1973.

Snow totals over most of the rest of South Dakota do not come close to Lead. Conversely, much of South Dakota annually experiences what would be considered a very mild winter by North Dakota standards.

Further south, in Nebraska, winter weather is much shorter in duration and generally far less severe than that experienced in the Minot region. Lincoln, Neb., has recorded only five days since 1948 with more than 10 inches of snow on the ground. Lincoln’s record snowfall would hardly be noticed here, 59.4 inches in the winter of 1914-15.

There’s another tell-tale sign of how much more agreeable winter can be just two states south of North Dakota. A Nebraska regulation forbids any motor vehicle traffic on frozen lakes. Only under certain circumstances are snowmobiles and ATV’s allowed on the ice. The reason? It rarely gets cold enough to create more than a few inches of ice on any body of water in Nebraska.

Ice thickness on lakes in North Dakota usually reaches two to three feet. Ice houses don’t have to be removed from state lakes until March 15. Most lakes don’t lose their ice pack until sometime in mid-April. Nearly all lakes in Nebraska were reported to be ice free earlier this week.

The difference, of course, is latitude. North Dakota is about as far north as it gets in the United States. Minot’s average December temperature is 15.4 degrees. In January the average drops to 12.1 degrees. In February it rises to 17 degrees and in March to 19.4 degrees.

Meteorologists define winter to be the three months with the lowest average temperatures, meaning December through February in North Dakota. However, the reality is, we recognize winter as being much, much longer. Sometimes winter starts with cold temperatures and snow in October and can continue well into April. August remains the only month in which snowfall has not been seen in Minot.