Extreme Spring Weather Sets Records

May 1, 2013

Huge branches snap under the weight of April's ice storm.
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

The season of spring comes with notions of new green plants peeking through the soil and warm sunshine. South Dakota’s first full month of spring this year was far from that picturesque mirage. The snowy weather and cold temperatures in some places were unprecedented. April offered some standout statistics, and some other weather elements that seem extreme but are really just average.

April showers bring May flowers, but what do April ice and wind and snow storms bring? According to weather experts, all-time records. Let’s start in Rapid City.

"You know, the first three weeks of April this year, we had some wild weather. We had quite a bit of snowfall across the area, along with cold temperatures as well. We saw in three significant snowstorms that deposited somewhere between a foot to about three feet of snow across western South Dakota," Melissa Smith says.

Smith is a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. She says April 2013 is the snowiest month Rapid City’s ever had since the late 1800s when the records began.

"The average snowfall around Rapid City in downtown Rapid City is usually around 49 inches a year," Smith says. "So receiving 40 inches in just April, that is quite a bit of snow."

But Smith points out that snow in April is pretty common. March is usually the snowiest month of the year, and April is second.

"And when I say that April is the second snowiest month, we typically get, oh, 8-10 inches in April, so there was about three to four times what we usually get, so that was quite a bit of snow that we did see in this past April," Smith says.

Rapid City’s snow has since melted, and the temperatures rose to 80 degrees this weekend. The warmer weather doesn’t balance the frigid temps from earlier in the month.

Across the state in Brookings, state climatologist Dennis Todey says April 2013 may be the coldest April since people started keeping track.

"Just looking through some of the data, most of the stations in the state are coming in coldest on record, except for a few stations on the western part of the state and a couple in the southeast, which are coming in second," Todey says. "It looks like, for statewide, it’ll probably be the coldest on record."

Todey says people can blame the cold temperatures for April’s snowfall sticking around longer than is typical for this time of the year, instead of quickly melting a day or two after the storm. When asked about the challenges April weather brought us, Todey asks, "What challenges? People want moisture; we provided moisture!"

Maybe Todey has a garage, because few people who chipped ice off of their windshields or dug out feet of snow were as amused. All joking aside, the climatologist says moisture is a legitimate upside to the winter precipitation. But it’s also not as much as it seemed when people were shoveling.

"It wasn’t an insane amount of actual liquid in the moisture," Todey says. "The wettest location compared to average was the southwest and some in the southeast, where we ended up having, some places in the southwest, 150 percent of average precipitation."

Todey says most of the state hung around average precipitation for April.

Sioux Falls took the brunt of the mid-month ice storm, which was made worse by another round of six to ten inches of snow. Half an inch of ice smothered outdoor surfaces, and thousands of branches snapped and trees splintered under the weight.

As the snow and ice melted away, South Dakota’s largest city launched an expansive cleanup effort. Now, federal authorities are assessing the aftermath. FEMA’s Portia Ross is in Sioux Falls this week. She examines and identifies any potential environmental or historic preservation issues that may exist when crews pick up the pieces.

"With this team in particular, with debris disposal, to ensure if we have any work in waterways. There is an endangered fish that occurs in this part of the state, the Topeka shiner," Ross says. "And also if there’s going to be any debris that is burned or chipped, that that’s all being done in accordance with all state, federal and local guidelines."

The team member explains her duties in front of a massive mound of broken branches and chunks of split trees. Her FEMA counterpart, Ron Pevan, is assessing debris the storm left behind.

"I’ll be done with my assessments by Thursday evening. I will then give those numbers to my state counterpart who will then take those numbers up," Pevan says. "We’ll review them not only in the region but the state will also review them. They’ll get together and they’ll send them up to the governor."

FEMA, city officials and state leaders are examining the costs of cleanup following April’s extreme weather events. Sioux Falls authorities estimate the city’s bill in the millions, and restoration is far from over. If the tally shows the damage meets the federal threshold, South Dakota’s governor can request a Presidential Disaster Declaration. He has thirty days from when the incident began; that means the deadline is May 10th.