The climate of the Great Plains is described as semi-arid. That means that it is sometimes dry (arid), sometimes wet, and sometimes somewhere in between. Most rain tends to fall during the early growing season which is particularly beneficial to small grains crops. However, rainfall is characteristically unreliable.
Winter snows melt into the ground forming an important source of subsoil moisture for crops and providing water to re-charge aquifers (underground pools of water). Snow cover also keeps the ground from freezing to a great depth which allows farmers to get crops seeded in April and protects the roots of trees, shrubs, and perennial plants.
The grasslands have few obstacles to slow the wind. Though winds blow year round on the Plains, winter winds bring severe weather conditions when combined with snow. Wind drives snow into deep drifts in coulees and alongside shelterbelts. Anything that will break the power of the wind will also form a drift. Houses also form a windbreak and drifts form on the far side of the house. This means that if the wind blows from the north, drifts form on the south side of the building.
North Dakota’s position on the northern Great Plains also means that bone-numbing cold can descend from the arctic on the wind sometimes bringing quantities of snow. The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a winter storm with 4 criteria: winds of at least 35 miles per hour (mph); snow blowing across the ground or falling from the sky; visibility of ¼ mile or less; lasting at least 3 hours. Temperature is not a criterion for a blizzard, but temperatures generally fall below freezing. Often, the clear skies which follow a blizzard mean below zero temperatures.
Though flooding can occur almost any time of year, typically North Dakota’s most devastating floods occur in late March or early April. Severe floods generally follow winters of heavy snows and unusual cold. Though all of North Dakota’s rivers and creeks can flood, the Red River of the North which forms the eastern boundary of the state is most prone to recurrent floods. The Missouri was dammed in the 1950s which controls most of the severe flooding on that river, but the Red continues to flood regularly causing damage to urban property and to farms in the broad flat valley of the Red.
Because of the economic damage and loss of life associated with extreme weather conditions, these natural phenomena are historically significant. This document collection focuses on a couple of these events, but they are by no means unusual except perhaps in the intensity of the event.
Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch. The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood. Grand Forks: Heritage Valley Press, 1996.
Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch. One to Remember: The Relentless Blizzard of March 1966. Grand Forks: Heritage Valley Press, 1996.
Fred J. Frederickson. “A Study of the Some of the Water Problems of North Dakota.” 31 December 1943. North Dakota Resources Board. SHSND 363.61 F8529r 1943
Lester E. Kelley. The Blizzard of 1966. Report of the State Highway Department. RSS 4-11-66. SHSND 3363.34925 N864b 1966
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