SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The weather in the late afternoon and night of Dec. 15 brought with it several firsts in South Dakota and the region.
“(This is the) first time we have issued any type of severe thunderstorm or tornado warning from the offices in Sioux Falls from the National Weather Service in December and that dates back to 1986,” KELOLAND meteorologist Scot Mundt said. There may have been other incidents prior to 1986 but records on that type of activity started in 1986, Mundt said.
“Yesterday was certainly an unusual day even for South Dakota where we see a lot of extremes in weather even with the same same day or the same week,” South Dakota state climatologist Laura Edwards said.
The NWS office in Sioux Falls covers southeastern South Dakota, parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska so it had issued watches and warnings for those areas, Edwards said.
The NWS in Sioux Falls issued six severe thunderstorm warnings and eight tornado warnings, Edwards said.
The weird weather was not limited to KELOLAND.
“It was quite the event yesterday not only across KELOLAND but across much of the upper plains into the midwest, as we had a spring-summer type of storm the middle of December,” Mundt said on Dec. 16.
Has it happened before?
Back on Christmas Day of 2016 about 1 1/4 of rain fell in Sioux Falls, Mundt said. Because of ice and snow many storm sewers were plugged and the rain caused localized flooding, he said.
“Over Christmas 2016 that caused a lot of ice, it was like freezing rain. Up here in the Aberdeen, Brown, Day county area, power was out for some folks… that was a little different,” Edwards said.
It happened in 2008 where a tornado touched down in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, Mundt said. Before that, a similar incident happened in 1967.
Edwards said she’s been asked if the Dec. 15 event was similar to the Children’s Blizzard of 1888 where the weather on a sunny, warm day changed quickly into a blizzard.
“Just a gut feeling as to the Children’s Blizzard, that event had a lot of snow. This event there was much snow,” Edwards said.
There have been some snow thunder events where it snows while it’s thundering. During a blizzard in October of 2013 there were some places in the state where there was thunder snow, Edwards said.
Does climate change have a role?
“When it comes to severe weather, especially like severe thunderstorms or tornadoes, they’re very, very local and you sometimes can’t really point toward a changing climate pattern or climate change necessarily when you’re looking at a single event,” Edwards said.
“But if we see a pattern of more frequent severe weather happening in the late fall or winter, that would be something notable. I don’t know that we can say that right now. A single day of severe weather can’t really tell us if that is going to be happening in the future,” Edwards said.
But rain and ice in winter storms are consistent with what is seen in a changing climate, she said.
“We see warmer winter seasons in general. With warmer temperatures it’s likely we will see more rain than snow,” Edwards said.
“We’ve seen a very warm December in general. It’s six degrees or so warmer in the Sioux Falls area,” Edwards said
Mundt said unusual weather has happened before in the upper midwest. Sometimes there are years between events, he said.
“It doesn’t happen often but it does happen,” Mundt said of weather events such as Dec. 15.
There is ongoing research on jet streams and other factors in weather patterns and severe weather, Edwards said.
There has been research looking at the heart of tornado alley which is generally south of South Dakota, Edwards said as an example. The alley appears to be shifting to the east which would include Kentucky, Edwards said. Kentucky was hit when one or several tornados did a roughly 200 mile stretch of damage on Dec. 10 and 11.