Predicted snowfall unlikely to measure up to first blizzard of historic 1996-97 season

FARGO - Twenty years ago, the Fargo-Moorhead metro area was hit with its first blizzard of the season that blew in with 13.5 inches of snow and was the beginning of a blizzard-filled winter that set records and led to major flooding of the Red River.
In this file photo, a car is drifted in Nov. 17, 1996, on the 1000 block of 2nd Avenue North, Fargo. Nick Carlson / The Forum

FARGO - Twenty years ago, the Fargo-Moorhead metro area was hit with its first blizzard of the season that blew in with 13.5 inches of snow and was the beginning of a blizzard-filled winter that set records and led to major flooding of the Red River.

Snow is in the forecast for Thursday, Nov. 17, into Friday - the first accumulation of the season - but it likely won't measure up to the historic blizzards of 1996-97.

What is considered one of the area's worst winters featured blustery winds, freezing rain and blizzard after blizzard after blizzard. A total of eight blizzards blasted Fargo-Moorhead that season.

The first blizzard struck Nov. 16 and 17, 1996. Although that first day was mild, only accumulating 2 inches of slush, the area received more than 10 inches of snow the next day, accompanied by wind gusts near 50 mph.

"We were suddenly well over knee-deep in snow. It was a pretty nasty storm," recalled WDAY meteorologist John Wheeler. But "it wasn't the worst of the winter."

Total snowfall for November that year reached 26 inches. The last blizzard of the season occurred April 6, bringing seasonal snowfall totals to a record of 117 inches.

Wheeler said that first snowfall in November indicated that it could turn out to be bad winter. Unlike this year, conditions then were cold and wet leading up to that first dump of snow.

"There were a lot of blizzards that season," said National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Barrett. "At this point we wouldn't be looking for something like that. There's still a few uncertainties with this particular storm."

Barrett's best outlook for this weekend is a "potential for heavier snowfall" in the southern valley, from Fargo on south, and over into the lakes region of Minnesota in cities like Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls.

The region typically sees its first inch of snow by now, Barrett said. Late October and early November are when the first accumulation occurs and "normally by Nov. 15 most of our region experiences a light snow cover."

But because of warm temperatures the last two weeks, the jet stream didn't bring in cooler air to generate snow, he said. After this weekend we'll be "shifting back into a normal pattern" with temperatures in the mid to upper 30s.

The National Weather Service also advises that strong winds on Friday could affect visibility on roads. Following the snowfall, the remainder of the weekend is expected to be dry and cold, more like November, according to the weather service.

"The first snow of the year is always hard for drivers to get used to," Wheeler said, adding that the first snow is going to be very slushy. Once temperatures drop, the slush will freeze, creating "treacherous" driving conditions.

The meteorologists said come Wednesday evening, Nov. 16, and early Thursday there will be a better indication of how many inches the storm will bring.