Late Season Snowfall in Minnesota

photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr
photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr

A week ago today, the landscape in southern Minnesota was snowless. Our lawn was bare – covered only with brown grass (which I convinced myself was most definitely turning green by the hour) and the desiccated leaves of last autumn. I imagined myself getting to work in the garden, planting hardy seeds of kale and spinach. I threw the kids’ snowsuits down the stairs to wash and dry them to put in storage for next fall. As retribution for such thoughts and actions, we received 3.6 inches of snow on Sunday night and more is coming down even as I type. After nearly 30 years here, you’d think I would know better. In Minnesota, you must keep your dreams of spring in check until at least April, possibly May.

In the Twin Cities, the average snowfall for March is 10.2 inches, beating out all months besides December and January. In March of 1951, the Twin Cities received a whopping 40 inches of snow. (Tangent: They shoveled this by hand. No ‘snowblowing’. Although snow throwing machines were invented as early as the 1880s for clearing train tracks, the domestic use ‘walk behind’ machines were only just coming on the market in the early 1950s.) Calling March ‘spring’ here might be tempting fate. March is a month of extreme variability in Minnesota with a record high of 88°F and a record low of -50°F. That’s a 138 degree spread!

I’ve been reading meteorologist Mark Seeley’s informative Minnesota Weather Almanac this week. In this book, Seeley details Minnesota’s worst and most remarkable winter storms. I was surprised how many of them occurred in March. My surprise is probably due to my annual (and naive) belief that winter is over in March – a belief which is perpetually crushed. Do I learn? Of course not, I’m an optimist; we never do.

A few notable late season snow storms:

March 19-20, 1826: Like 1951, March of 1826 brought about 40 inches of snow, including 18 inches on these two days causing snowdrifts of 6 to 15 feet. This snowfall was followed by a further 8 inches in early April. Subsequently, a blast of cold air (4°F on April 10th) arrived further delaying the breakup of ice on the rivers. This sequence of events led to massive flooding carrying away low lying buildings at Fort Snelling and Fort Crawford as well as Chief Little Crow’s village at the site of modern day South Saint Paul. The river ultimately crested at 20 feet above low water.

April 5, 1933: A heavy snowfall struck the north shore, dumping 28 inches of snow in Cook County, a still standing record for 24 hour snowfall in April.

March 15-16, 1941: A blizzard hits western Minnesota. 85 mph winds were reported at Grand Forks and 75 mph winds were reported at Fargo-Moorhead. The wind chill bottomed out at -35°F. Although snowfall from this storm was light, a number of people died from exposure due to the extreme winds and temperatures. Before this storm, Minnesota only had observational weather services, but upset over the lack of warning and the resulting fatalities resulted in forecasting services being added by the National Weather Services.

May 2-3. 1954: Yes, you read that correctly, MAY. A huge storm moves across northern Minnesota. Dropping as much as 10-12 inches of snow across much of the northern half of the state. I would be pissed.

March 14-15, 2002: A storm of mixed precipitation, thunder, and lightning, brought 10-21 inches of snow.

March and April snowfalls aren’t the outliers I’d like the believe they are. They are, in fact, the norm. And while they are often minor interludes between luxuriously (to Minnesotans) sunny days in the mid-40s, they can also be severe, even dangerous. Huge winter storms can even arrive in May (as they did in 1954), but it’s uncommon.

Well, at least we have June, July, and August, because it sometimes snows in September too.

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