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Wintery April weather has an up side

As snow systems continue to roll across the area, the north woods look more like winter than spring.

Wintery weather is not unusual in April in Minnesota and the heavy, wet snow is helping restore moisture from last year's drought. The snow clinging to every branch also makes the forest look like a winter wonderland, especially when a deer peers out between the trees.
Contributed / Connie Cox
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According to Jim Kaiser, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, ND, snowy Aprils are fairly common in Minnesota.

“In 2008, we had three weekends out of the four with 10 or more inches of snowfall across the Park Rapids and Bemidji areas,” he said. “So there were like 40 inches of snow just in April that year from those strong systems.”

The storms the past two weeks have been multiple-day events, as is the one expected this week.

Because they come across the Rocky Mountains, they are referred to as Colorado lows.

“In the winter, we get Alberta Clippers that move fast with strong winds out of Canada,” he said. “The Colorado lows that come across the Rockies are typically a slower moving system. At this time of year, they have a lot of energy to work with so there can be severe weather in Iowa and southern Minnesota with blizzards and heavy snow in North Dakota.”


Kaiser said how much snow falls in central and northern Minnesota depends on where the rain/snow line is. “The temperature plays a big factor in that,” he said.

Spring storms are also more variable in how much snow falls from one place to another even within a few miles.

“You can have widely varying amounts of snow due to the elevation and the temperature,” he said. “Elevation plays a bigger difference when you’re hovering around freezing, either allowing accumulation to occur or melting that snow on contact. Wind coming over a lake can also add moisture and enhance precipitation.”

Winter is battling spring

“April is a big transition month,” Kaiser said. “The atmosphere is very volatile. It still has that memory of winter, but yet the sun angle and strength of the sun is what’s driving the warmth. April is this battle between winter and spring trying to establish the growing season, who’s going to win. That extreme variability is driven by the cold air to the north and the warm air to our south.”

Kaiser said La Nina winters like this are typically colder and snowier for our area.

“That certainly came through for this winter, but last year was also La Nina and we hardly had any snow,” he said. “That just goes to show there’s a lot of variability in factors that affect the weather.

Once this week’s storm moves through, he said the pattern going forward looks less active as far as precipitation goes.

“By the end of April, beginning of May I think we’ll begin to trend in the right direction with respect to spring,” he said.


Long winters

Connie Cox is a naturalist at Itasca State Park. She said these snowy Aprils shouldn’t catch people by surprise.

“We had that long winter in 2008 and that late spring in 2013 when the fishing opener was here in Park Rapids,” she said.

Cox said she learned first hand how spring storms can vary widely from one area to the next. “We live just over five miles from the north end of Itasca as the crow flies,” she said. “On April 1 in 1998 at my house we had 15 inches of snow and at Itasca State Park there was less than one inch. You got up to Hwy. 2 that is 15 miles north of my house and there was just a dusting. This time of year, they talk about these snow bands that can be really heavy and that was one of those cases. I couldn’t get my car out of the driveway. Someone at the park thought I was kidding. He came to pick me up and got stuck in my driveway and we had to shovel out. Then he knew I wasn’t kidding.”

Snow is helping moisture deficit

Kaiser said the drought level for Hubbard County has improved greatly since last summer when it was level D4 which is the worst level of drought. Three months ago Hubbard County was in a D1 or moderate drought. The current level is D Zero, which means “abnormally dry.”

“We still haven’t made up all of our precipitation deficit over the past six months,” he said.

Cox said this year is unusual in that early snow acted as an insulating blanket and kept the frost out of the ground in undisturbed areas so moisture from snowmelt is able to penetrate the soil.

“On March 21, my husband, Bruce, had to dig a hole for a project,” she said. “He took a pickaxe because he thought he’d have to chop through frost. But when he pushed the snow away there wasn’t any frost. It was when we had a warm day. He dug down three feet and that melting snow was running down into the ground. It is so good to know the water from the melting snow wasn’t just evaporating. We were watching as the snow melted. There’s a spot in our yard that normally pools up with water. There was water pooling, but not as much as we were expecting for the volume of snow that had melted. That’s because the moisture was going down and saturating the soil.”

A wind report is measured by an anemometer at a location free of obstructions at 10 meters (about 33 feet) above the ground.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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