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Mike Nowatzki, Published December 16 2008

Blizzard a big one, but not in top 10

As blizzards go, Sunday’s was a whopper.

But here, where blizzards are the folklore and in many ways the scourge of the Great Plains, Daryl Ritchison says Sunday’s storm doesn’t even rank in the top 10 blizzards of the past 130 years.

“In some ways, people always think the last one was the worst because they don’t remember the one before that,” said Ritchison, a WDAY TV meteorologist in Fargo.

Still, the storm that slapped Fargo-Moorhead with 10.1 inches of snow and whipped up snow drifts 4 to 5 feet high deserves recognition as one of the worst, if not the worst, blizzard since the brutal winter of 1996-97, said Ritchison and Pete Speicher, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Forks.

“Again, it depends on how you define it,” Speicher said. “But when you bring everything together – the cold air, the amount of snow and the high winds and restricted visibilities … from a meteorological standpoint, I’d say it’s probably the worst (since 1996-97).”

By definition, a blizzard has wind speeds of 35 mph or more and considerable falling and/or blowing snow with near-zero visibility.

Powerful winds accompanied this latest blizzard, with an average wind speed of 31.7 mph on Sunday.

“I can’t remember the last time we had an average wind speed for the day of over 30 mph,” Ritchison said.

Fargo’s Hector International Airport recorded a gust of 54 mph, and the strongest two-minute average wind speed was 43 mph on Sunday.

“Both of those are very impressive numbers,” he said.

But they’re just a puff of cold air compared with the 92-mph gust recorded during the blizzard of March 15-16, 1941. Thirty-nine people died in North Dakota and 32 in Minnesota, according to a top 10 blizzard list compiled by WDAY meteorologist John Wheeler several years ago.

Sunday’s subzero temperatures? Paltry when put up against the 39 below zero during the blizzard of Jan. 30-31, 1893 – a low that wasn’t hit again until 1996.

Of course, as longtime F-M residents will attest, the blizzard of March 2-5, 1966, blew all other blizzards away.

Fifteen inches of snow fell in Fargo, more than 3 feet in Grand Forks and Devils Lake. Snowdrifts were more than 30 feet high as the storm raged for four days, according to Wheeler, who called the blizzard “the modern-day benchmark to which other blizzards are now compared.”

For those who haven’t lived here that long, the paralyzing April 1997 ice and snow storm that knocked out power to more than 100,000 households may be the big blizzard of their time – although they’re not likely to forget Sunday anytime soon.

“It didn’t last the longest, but it was a good one,” Ritchison said.