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Dakotas blizzard adds to extreme spring flooding risk

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:13 AM GMT on February 21, 2011

Heavy snows in excess of six inches have piled up over much of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota today, with a storm maximum of 16 inches reported at Midland, South Dakota. This is bad news for residents in flood-prone areas of the Upper Midwest, as the new storm has added more than another half inch of melted rainfall equivalent to a snowpack that already had a record water content. When all that snow melts in late March, we can expect another spring of major and possibly record flooding for North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, or the Upper Mississippi River north of St. Louis, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Their February Spring Flood Outlook released last week warned: "Heavy autumn rains and above average water content in the snow pack throughout the North Central U.S. have produced a high risk of moderate and major flooding for the Spring of 2011. Areas of greatest concern include the Red River of the North in North Dakota and Minnesota, Devils Lake in North Dakota, the James River and Big Sioux River in South Dakota, and areas along the Upper Mississippi River including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Heavy late summer and autumn precipitation (twice the normal amount since October in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota) have soils saturated and streams running high before the winter freeze-up. Another winter of above average snowfall has added water to the snow pack on top of the frozen saturated soils in the North Central US. NWS models show this snowpack containing a water content ranked in the 90 to 100 percentile when compared to a 60 year average. These factors have combined to create some of the highest soil moisture contents of the last century. "

Figure 1. North Central U.S. flood risk. Image credit: NWS. The outlook will be updated on February 24, and a final outlook issued March 17.

There is a huge amount of snow on the ground in North Dakota along the tributaries of the Red River, thanks to fall precipitation that was 150% - 300% of normal, and winter snows that have dumped up to 400% more precipitation than usual. If one were to melt this snow, it would amount to 4 - 5 inches of rain. If heavy rains occur at the same time that the snow melts, there is the potential for the greatest flood in history to affect the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks, the largest and third largest cities in North Dakota. NWS is giving a 20% chance that Fargo will see its greatest flood in history, and a 10% chance for Grand Forks.

The situation is similar in Minnesota, which has received about double its normal precipitation over the past 3 to 4 months. Snow depths are generally around 18 inches in the Upper Mississippi watershed, with a high water content. If one were to melt this snow, it would amount to 3.5 - 5.5 inches of rain, which ranks among the wettest snow packs in the 60-year record. NWS is giving a 15% chance that St. Paul will see its highest flood in history this spring.

In South Dakota, heavy snows this winter have also left a snowpack with a high water content, and NWS is predicting a 30% chance that the the James River at Huron, SD and the Big Sioux River at Brookings, SD will reach their highest flood heights in history.

Figure 2. The snow water equivalent of the Upper Midwest's snowpack as of February 18, 2011. Large sections of Minnesota and North Dakota have the equivalent of 3.9 - 5.9 inches of rain (purple colors) stored in their snowpack. Image credit: NWS/NOHRSC.

When will all this flooding occur? Generally, late March through mid-April is the time when the big spring melt occurs. The record 2009 Red River flood peaked on March 28 in Fargo. The great 1997 Red River flood that devastated Grand Forks, causing $3.5 billion in damage, crested on April 18. St. Paul's greatest flood in history crested on April 19, 1965.

I'll have a new post Tuesday or Wednesday.

Jeff Masters
Blinding snowstorm hits Detroit area
Blinding snowstorm hits Detroit area
The Detroit area was hit with a blinding snowstorm this afternoon and evening, with near zero visibility and thunder/lightning, as the snowfall piles up quickly and deeply.

Flood Winter Weather

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.