Going to Extremes

March 23 is an interesting day in the Fargo Moorhead weather record book.  With records dating to 1881, there are two versions of this particular date which stand out.  In 1910, it was 80 degrees.  This remains the only 80 degree day in March in the history of Fargo Moorhead.  The spring of 1910 was extraordinarily warm and dry and with the drought lasting well into summer, it was a year of many crop failures.  From the opposite end of things, March 23 of 1974 remains the latest day in the year on record with a subzero high temperature.  That was one of those years in which spring seemed to never show. And following a week of cold days and a fresh two inch snowfall on March 22, the 23rd delivered a low of eleven below zero and a high of one below. These are two extreme illustrations of how variable the weather can be in March.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

First Day of Nothing

Friday, March 20, is the Vernal Equinox.  Many people call this the first day of spring without thinking much about it.  Can spring start at the same moment everywhere on Earth?  Think about the equatorial regions.  At the equator, March and September are when the sun is directly overhead at noon.  It is hot all year at the equator.  But it is often hottest in March and September.  The weather is also rainiest and most humid along the equator around the time of the equinoxes because the direct sunlight causes peaks in evaporation rates to go along with the peaks in temperature.  Around the time of the Solstices in winter and summer, the middle of the world has its two slightly less hot seasons.  So there are relationships between the equinoxes and weather, but they are general and varied around the world.  The Vernal Equinox is really an astronomical moment with no immediate impacts on the weather anywhere.  This makes the “first day of spring” a fairly useless concept.    Meteorologist John Wheeler

Tornado Absence


March is typically one of the peak months for tornadoes in the United States.  Though rare so early in our region, it is common for there to be big outbreaks in March across the Southern Plains or the Southeast.  This year, for just the second time since 1950, there were no tornadoes reported across the country from March 1-15.  The other year was 1969. The cause for this year’s absence of twisters is, of course, the jet stream pattern, which has kept the Great Plains extremely dry this month so far.  And although the Southeast has been rainy, the rains have been general soakers.  The pattern just has not favored the development of tornado-producing supercell thunderstorms.  This should not be taken as a sign that our warm season will be free of tornadoes.  Meteorologist John Wheeler

Aurorae Come and Go

Northern lights, also called Aurora Borealis, were seen over much of our region by a great many people Monday and Tuesday nights.  Northern lights are caused by high energy particles emitted from the sun.  When these supercharged particles reach Earth, they react with gasses in the upper atmosphere, releasing photons in the process.  The photons glow varying colors based on the gas.  Oxygen glows green.  Nitrogen glows red. Earth’s magnetic field concentrates the particles, and the aurorae, near the magnetic poles, which is why we see them more frequently in the north-northeastern sky.  Aurorae are more frequent and often more brilliant during times of heightened solar storminess.  The frequency of solar storms is related to the eleven year solar cycle but these are not identical.  In fact, they vary greatly.  During the 1990s and 2000s, northern lights at our latitude have been seen less frequently than they were back in the 1980s.  The present cycle has been more active.   Meteorologist ohn Wheeler


Too Wet or Too Dry

As the winter snow melts from the fields around the Red River Valley region, there are just two possibilities for soil conditions.  It can be too wet or it can be too dry.  The concept of “just about right” almost never works in the early spring.  If winter snow was substantial, or even average, the frost in the ground makes it hard for moisture to be absorbed.  So the soil tends to remain soggy and any rain tends to just sit there and make mud.  Spring field work has to wait for drier days.  If the winter snow cover was light, then the strong sunlight beaming down this time of year tends to evaporate what little moisture is in the topsoil and it gets dusty in a hurry.  This can be frustrating for the farmer who is either waiting for fields to be dry enough for work or else is planting seeds knowing they will require rain for germination.     Meteorologist John Wheeler

Drought Brings Good With Bad

Since 1993, the weather pattern over the Red River Valley region has been wet.  Dry periods within this time frame have been few and generally brief. Average annual rainfall increased 15-20 per cent starting in 1993.  The weather has been wetter and for a longer period than the dust bowl years were dry.  Eventually this pattern will end but it is not possible to know in advance if the change will take place in another hundred years or if is starting right now.  Weather is difficult that way.  Although drought is hard on our overall economy and water shortages can make life more difficult, drought is a naturally occurring part of nature.  It has a way of rebooting wetlands, leaving them healthier and more productive.  A drought would lower the almost annual flood threat by lowering reservoir levels.  And a drought would lower Devils Lake.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

Prairie Fires


Each of the last two spring seasons has been cold, wet, and late.  This one has come in early and dry. This could mean a lot more grass fires this spring.  Pre-historically and historically, prairie fires were common across our region in spring.  As the snow melted each spring, hundreds of square miles of dead grass lay on the ground just waiting to burn on a hot, dry, windy day. All it needed was a bolt of lightning from a light thundershower.  As our terrain has given way to agriculture, grass fires have been reduced to ditches and the few remaining stretches of prairie.  Still, an out-of-control fire is extremely dangerous. It is possible even today for fires to grow large enough to put farmsteads and even whole towns at risk.  And today’s fires are more easily started by careless smokers, trains, or accidental controlled burnings growing out of control.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

Gut Feelings Worth Little/Nothing


Since this warm spell began, many people have asked me about “gut feelings” (theirs or mine), as to how much winter weather remains. The premise being that a number of people “have a feeling” we have seen the last of snow and cold.  A good weather forecaster does not use “gut feelings” to make a forecast because such a premonition would be baseless.  Colder weather and even snowstorms could happen with a change in the Jet Stream.  The physics models we use to make our seven-day-forecasts actually run out to more than two weeks.  It’s just that they are terrible at such a range.  Other forecasting tools, such as circulation anomalies, are sending mixed signals as they often do in spring.  So this meteorologist is comfortable saying any spring/summer forecast is as good as anyone’s gut feeling, which is essentially worthless. So enjoy the mild weekend weather.  It might last but it might not.   Meteorologist John Wheeler


Drought Talk Premature

Any discussion of drought in our region is March is probably premature.  It has been dry all around eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota since the middle of fall but all our water needs are being met at the moment.  This all changes if the dry weather lingers past planting season.  After planting, crops will need rainfall to germinate. But a timely rain or two will get regional growers through.  By summer, the effects a continued lack of rain will depend on the temperatures.  If it is hot, evaporation rates will be greater and crops will need more rain.  If it is cool, crops can get by with less.  Reservoirs upstream are relatively full so unless the drought is severe, rivers should not drop to low.  But again, a combination of severe drought and high temperatures could cause municipal and other water shortages.  Of course, none of this has happened, yet.  Thus, any discussion of drought in March is probably premature.     Meteorologist John Wheeler

March Blizzards


It is a myth that there are always huge blizzards in March.  In the distant past as well as in recent years, March and April pass without any blizzards at all.  Of course, it is also true that some of our most severe blizzards in history have happened in March.  Across North Dakota, the benchmark for blizzards may well be the monster blizzard of March 3-6, 1966, when one to three feet of snow with winds 50 to 100 mph built drifts 30 feet high.  But March is not the only month with a tendency to produce memorable winter storms.  All of the cold months from October through April have produced at least a few severe blizzards.  Interestingly, the big ones are most common in three of the months; November, January, and March.  November and March provide the greatest proximity of warm and cold as the seasons change.  January is the king month for hybrid Alberta Clipper storms connecting with super strong Arctic high pressure systems.   John Wheeler