The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blizzard delivers record April snowfall in northern Plains

Bismarck, N.D., saw its biggest April snowstorm on record, while Montana picked up as much as four feet

Jared Hanson playfully sprays his daughter, Kaityln, 7, with snow as she builds a fort in Bismarck, N.D., on Tuesday. (Mike Mccleary/Bismarck Tribune/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A historic spring snowstorm has ended across the northern Plains after dumping as much as four feet of snow in Montana and up to three feet in North Dakota.

Bismarck, N.D., recorded 18.3 inches, making it the largest snowstorm on record in April there. Across western North Dakota, numerous locations picked up 20 to 30-plus inches of snow, and snow drifts — towering heaps of wind-sculpted snow — topping six feet.

Blizzard warnings that were up for more than two days across most of North Dakota, as well as portions of Montana and South Dakota, were allowed to expire Thursday night. Wind gusts as high as 63 mph were recorded, leading to impossible travel during the storm. Blowing snow and extremely low visibility have been common.

The prairies of Manitoba in southern Canada were also impacted, with Winnipeg seeing blizzard conditions at times.

Severe weather and snow

The same sprawling storm that caused tornadoes in the Midwest and Plains, as well as additional severe weather across the south Wednesday, led to the blizzard across the northern tier of the country.

Known in the meteorological world as a Colorado Low, the surface low-pressure center tracked from the High Plains of Colorado on Tuesday, across Nebraska and into Minnesota on Wednesday, where it stalled for a time. As of Friday morning, the storm was weakening and moving northeast to the south of Hudson Bay.

On the northwest side of the storm system, temperatures were in the teens and 20s during the day as snow fell. Readings some 20 to 30 degrees below normal fostered the major spring snowstorm.

This U.S. town sees as many as a dozen blizzards each year. It’s also a desert.

Cold high pressure to the north and west, which has been responsible for the readings well below freezing, is also acting to tighten up a pressure gradient across the region. The rapid change in pressure from high to low enhances the winds, leading to blizzard conditions.

The aftermath and an early look at records

Roadways were much improved across North Dakota Friday morning, although major thoroughfares like Interstate 94 remained heavily impacted.

“Quite cold temperatures are expected over the area the next few days,” wrote the Weather Service office in Bismarck. “Today will be the coldest day with highs about 30 degrees below average!”

On Wednesday and Thursday, North Dakota Department of Transportation reported that most of the state was under a “no travel advisory.” The main west to east Interstate — I-94 — was closed from the Montana border to Jamestown for more than three days.

A snow emergency was issued in Bismarck, where government offices were shuttered due to the snow Wednesday and Thursday. Offices were already closed for Good Friday prior to the blizzard.

At least 18.3 inches of snow officially fell in the city through Thursday night. This makes the storm the biggest on record in April there, topping 17.8 inches in 2013 and 17.3 inches in 1997. Records for Bismarck date back to 1886.

The 19.4 inches in Bismarck this month, including 1.1 inches that fell on the 3rd, is now also the second most on record for any April. April 2013′s tally of 21.8 inches may still be in reach there, as additional snowfall is expected this weekend.

Around Minot, in northwestern parts of the state, several reports of 30 inches or more have arrived. As much as 36 inches was measured a few miles northwest of the city, an unofficial record for April there. The Weather Service noted inherent difficulties in measuring snow as winds gust to 60 mph, but also indicated there was considerable proof the number was valid.

About two dozen reports of two feet or more of snow were mainly focused from I-94 northward over the western half of the state. A 100-plus mile stretch of I-94, from the western border near Sentinel Butte to just west of Bismarck at Glen Ullin, picked up 20 to 24 inches.

Snow drifts of six-to-10 feet in height were created by winds gusting between 50 and 60 mph for more than two days. Minot Airport and Hettinger both recorded peak gusts to 63 mph.

There was also a good deal of water content in the snow, especially for the semiarid region in the midst of drought. Many places saw more than two inches of liquid equivalent precipitation going into the prolific snowfall totals.

Farther west, the plains of Montana saw up to a foot or a foot and a half of snow, including 15 inches in Billings and 13 inches near St. Phillip in the east of the state. Mountainous locations picked up as much as 36 to 47 inches near Pony, and around 2 feet near Nye.

Snow and unusually cold weather has also been occurring in the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming. A low temperature of at least 10 degrees in Denver broke a record there on Wednesday, one of a number to fall in the region in recent days.

Not unheard of, but on the late side

Bismarck’s biggest snowstorms have all happened in the spring or fall. Given its northern latitude, much of winter features such frigid and dry air that significant snowstorms are much less possible.

The shoulder seasons provide the opportunity to go big across the region. Prior to this storm, the biggest April snowfall in the city was 17.8 inches, in 2013. The city’s biggest all-time three-day storm came in November 1993, when 23.5 inches fell (several inches fell in the days after, as well). A similar Colorado Low also slammed the region, shutting down portions of the state for several days, in early April 1997.

Nonetheless, this storm is happening on the late side of normal for the region. The 10 inches recorded there Tuesday was the third most for one day so late in the year, with only 1984 and 2013 featuring bigger one-day snowfalls later in the season.

While impacts can linger for several days after a storm such as this, the strong April sun tends to eat up the snow fairly quickly. Road conditions are expected to improve dramatically Friday ahead of a smaller snow threat over the weekend.