Warm winter weather continues across North Dakota, Lake Sakakawea approaching latest freeze date

Lake Sakakawea approaches record

Kim Fundingsland/MDN A fisherman walks onto the ice at Lake Audubon in this Dec. 26, 2020 photograph. Although some large ice houses can be found on state lakes, many anglers remain wary of ice conditions due to unseasonably warm temperatures.

The winter of 2020-2021 is well on its way to becoming one for the record books. The question is, how long into the winter season can our unusually warm temperatures continue?

According to the National Weather Service, high temperatures throughout the state today are expected to approach or surpass all-time records. Minot’s all-time high for this date was 46 degrees set in 1942. Wednesday’s forecast calls for a possible high temperature of 51 degrees and Minot is not alone in hopes of surpassing record high temperatures. There’s a very good possibility that several North Dakota locations will set new temperature records today.

Evidence of an unusually warm stretch of winter weather can be found at Lake Sakakawea where complete freeze-up generally can be expected in mid-December with the earliest declaration of “completely frozen” occurring on November 30, 1985. It is a much different story this year.

As of Tuesday the Corps of Engineers, the agency that annually declares Lake Sakakawea “frozen” and “ice free”, noted that there was a “lot of open water” remaining on the sprawling reservoir. Rob Nagel, shift operator at the Garrison Dam Power Plant, thought the record for latest freeze on Lake Sakakawea is all but assured to be broken.

“I definitely think it will be a record for the latest freeze,” said Nagel. “It might not freeze at all. I’m serious. It’s crazy.”

The latest freeze on record for Lake Sakakawea is only a few days away – January 18, 2012. Given the forecast for warm and windy weather for the days ahead, the record certainly seems destined to fall. That opinion is shared by Brandon Gale, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

“It’s definitely not going to happen in the near future,” said Gale. “That’s a large body of water and it is going to take an extended period of time with temps below freezing and it just hasn’t been consistently below freezing long enough for significant ice on that lake.”

Average daytime high temperatures thus far in January have averaged more than 41 degrees for Minot, roughly 20 degrees more than the long-term norm. Overnight lows have averaged nearly 24 degrees. That compares with the historic average of three degrees.

Another example of just how unusually warm our weather has been can be found in historic lows, such as minus 41 for Jan. 11 set in 1912. This year Minot’s low for Jan. 11 was 25 degrees above zero. Last year it was minus 5.

A change in our weather can be expected of course. An axiom well known throughout the state is that our weather “always gets even.” Lately the phrase “sudden stratospheric warming events” has been getting increased attention. In a nutshell, that’s the possibility of of an invasion of Arctic air.

“It’s hard to explain,” explained Gale. “Basically it is a warming of the atmosphere above our layer that loosens up all the trapped air and there is the potential for it to come down to the middle latitudes. It’s not like a guarantee, not a definite thing, but a greater chance of Arctic air outbreaks in our part of the world. We’re not seeing any signals of it coming down yet.”

Gale added that he could see nothing in the forecast for the next couple of weeks to change that assessment, saying that the time period of February through March was more probable, if it happens at all. A greater impact on our winter weather comes from another source – La Nina, which spawns from cooler than normal temperatures over the Pacific Ocean.

“We are in a La Nina pattern and will eventually transition,” remarked Gale. “In years past that typically brings more storm systems through our area, a little bit colder and wetter. Obviously we haven’t seen that switchover yet but we are still forecasting above normal precipitation and below normal temps the next three months.”

Even so, for most North Dakotans, spring may not seem very far away. The days are getting longer, we add more than an hour of daylight in January, and “real” winter is getting one of the latest starts on record in our region.

“It’s impressive but not entirely unusual,” said Gale. “Definitely not typical but it is not that it has never happened before.”

It has, but a long time ago. Minot’s high for today was set 79 years ago, Bismarck 120 years ago, and Jamestown 125 year ago.

The weather for the next several days will be cooler with daytime temperatures near the freezing mark and overnight lows in the teens at least through Monday. The NWS issued a High Wind Watch Tuesday for most of western North Dakota, including Minot. Winds of 40-60 mph, beginning tonight, are in the forecast through Friday.

Wednesday all-time high temperatures

Minot – 46, 1942

Bismarck – 52, 1901

Dickinson – 54, 1996

Jamestown – 48, 1896

Today’s high temperature forecast

Minot – 49

Bismarck – 54

Dickinson – 58

Jamestown – 46


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