We may be three weeks into spring, but the weather doesn’t seem to care in a big chunk of the central United States — especially from Denver to Minneapolis and places in between.
Blizzard and winter storm warnings are now in place in more than a dozen states. A huge chunk of real estate in the Plains and Midwest is expected to pick up at least a foot of snow, and a large swath of South Dakota into Minnesota is looking at historic snowfall on the order of 18 to 30 inches.
Then there’s the wind. Parts of six states from Colorado to Minnesota are under blizzard warnings, with widespread wind gusts of 50 mph or greater anticipated along with whiteout conditions.
This rapidly developing storm was affecting about half of the Lower 48 on Wednesday morning with wind, heavy rain and/or snow — depending on location. But snow is expected to cause some of the greatest disruption.
Snow this time of year is certainly not unheard of in parts of the affected region.
Many areas roughly from Nebraska northward have better than 50 percent odds of seeing measurable snow during the month. In much of the front range and Rockies area, April or May snow is basically a guarantee.
But this storm is a big one, and not just for April, but any time of year. Relatively far removed from a moisture source such as the Gulf of Mexico, mega snowstorms in the region don’t typically produce two or more feet of snow. This one certainly has the potential.
And while the worst is yet to come, snow is already underway in some locations, and it’s piling up fast.
A band of moderate to occasional heavy snow has already blanketed parts of Wyoming and South Dakota since Tuesday night. Some thundersnow has been reported as well, with accompanying snowfall rates briefly as high as two inches per hour over eastern South Dakota on Wednesday morning.
Across the northern half of South Dakota, some towns have picked up six to 10 or more inches of snow so far. Mud Butte, in the northwestern part of the state, had 18 inches of new snow just before 10 a.m. local time Wednesday.
The heaviest snowfall, however, is not expected until late Wednesday into Thursday.
“Blizzard conditions are expected as heavy and wet snow combines with strong wind. A swath of 1 to 2 feet of snow is forecast for the Central/Northern Plains and into Western Minnesota,” the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center wrote on Wednesday morning. The center is also expecting higher totals in places.
The first signs of new trouble brewing are coming together in places such as Denver, where Tuesday’s near-record high of 80 degrees is a memory as a strong north wind takes over and rain turns to snow. A blizzard warning begins Wednesday at noon there, and the situation deteriorates into the night. Five to 10 inches of snow and wind gusts up to 65 mph are forecast.
As the storm develops in the Plains, the pressure near its center is rapidly falling and is forecast to bottom out near 980 millibars late Wednesday afternoon or night. The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm. And the predicted pressure is about as low as it gets in the Plains at this time of year.
As the storm matures, it will eject new bands of moderate to heavy snow along its northern and northwestern sides. These snow bands will target parts of Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.
As periods of heavy snow rotate around the storm, and its low pressure center inches slowly from Kansas to the northeast this evening through Thursday, prolonged intense snow is possible.
“Snowfall rates may reach near 1-2 inches per hour,” the Weather Service serving the Twin Cities wrote. Some of this is likely to include thundersnow due to the energy associated with the storm.
Minneapolis is expecting about three to six inches of snow, mostly falling late Wednesday night into Thursday morning. It may also see some sleet and freezing rain, and winds could gust to 45 mph. Conditions will be worse to its north and west.
Combined with strong winds, blowing and drifting of snow is likely across a large region of the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, as well as significantly reduced visibility. Widespread blizzard conditions are expected from the High Plains of Colorado and Kansas across a large chunk of Nebraska and South Dakota, stretching as far east as Minnesota.
“Very strong low level winds up to 50 knots [58 mph] or higher will wrap around this system mainly for tonight through Thursday night bringing widespread blizzard conditions to the region,” wrote the Weather Service office serving Aberdeen, S.D., in its outlook on the storm.
In Aberdeen, the forecast was for 12 to 18 inches as of Wednesday morning. For perspective, the most snow recorded there in all of April and through the end of the season is 25 inches in 1970.
The biggest two-day total there since the late 1800s was 17.5 inches ending April 13 that year. To reach the number-two spot so late, the city needs more than 13 inches.
Some spots to the southeast of Aberdeen, such as Huron, may pick up as much as 2 ½ feet of snow.
Huron just set its April two-day snowfall record in 2018 with 15.5 inches on April 13-14. The forecast there is near the maximum for this storm, and final amounts could top the mark for its biggest snowstorm on record: 24.1 inches in early March 1985.
A number of other places across parts of South Dakota and southwestern Montana, as well as northern Nebraska, may also test late-season records and even all-time values in the days ahead.
Behind the storm, temperatures below normal to much below normal are a good bet. Even so, readings will rise above freezing next week. Adding in the strong April sun, melting should be significant by then, likely leading to renewed flooding concerns.