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Weather patterns affect winter recreation

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While residents of the Northern Plains have to battle blizzards, icy roads and other winter hazards, one thing they can look forward to are winter activities like cross country skiing, snowmobiling and outdoor ice skating.

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While southwest North Dakota’s melt-and-freeze cycle has removed much of the region’s snow, making some outdoor activities nearly impossible, the northeastern corner of the state has several inches of snow — more than three feet — much of which is unlikely to melt until spring, said Greg Gust, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks.

Because much of the weather this winter has been coming from the north and northwest, rather than the southwest or west, the weather has been dry, meaning precipitation is usually tapped out once it gets over the Rocky Mountains, and doesn’t pick up moisture again until it gets east of the Missouri River, Gust said.

“For us, for a winter storm, you have to drag in warm, southerly air into the mix in order to generate snow, and you have to have that cold air near the surface to get it to condense out as snowflakes,” Gust said.

That, combined with warmer temperatures in the southwest corner — Dickinson had 17 days above freezing, six of which were above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, in January — means snow disappears more quickly.

“You will get the feel of some of the Chinook winds that are occurring in Montana and you will tend to erode the arctic inversion,” Gust said. “When the arctic air comes in and it’s very cold near the surface you on the west — so coming across eastern Montana to the western Dakotas — will erode, or eat away at, the Chinook winds, the warming coming out of that.”

As Medora’s winter tourism increases, the lack of snow and warmer weather can put a damper on some activities, like the outdoor skating rink in front of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame or cross country skiing or snowshoeing at Bully Pulpit Golf Course.

“The skiing has been a challenge when there’s not much snow around, but at the same time, there’s a lot of great opportunities at the national park,” said Kinley Slauter, historic preservation manager for for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. “When it’s warmer out, it’s just a lot more nice to walk on the trails or the streets of Medora. I wouldn’t say nicer weather and less snow doesn’t really set us back. It just changes what people come out to do.”

The Little Missouri River is one of the most popular places to cross country ski, Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said. But because of increased moisture from the last few years, springs near the Little Missouri have been flowing, keeping the river running and not allowing it to freeze.

“It is unusual to see the river flowing this time of year, especially when it’s been so cold,” Naylor said.

The park isn’t the best place to cross country ski or snowshoe because the snow doesn’t stay on the Badlands for long, Naylor said. But the warmer winter weather has gotten people in the park.

“The scenery and the lighting are just gorgeous this time of year, and the wildlife view is also very good,” Naylor said. “It’s a very great time of year for photographs. … We just want to encourage people to come out and see it in all seasons. It’s different in each season and there’s so much to see in the winter, even if people stay close to their cars. There’s still a lot of opportunities for enjoying the park.”

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Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206
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