Why winter storms shut down interstates in North Dakota more often than in Minnesota

North Dakota interstates have closed numerous times this winter season, compared to one 2-day closure on I-94 in Minnesota.

Several semi trucks are parked in a lot, stretching into the distance, with snow piled and wet cement around them.
The semi parking lot sits full Wednesday, April 5, 2023, at the Petro Travel Center in south Fargo while both Interstate 94 and Interstate 29 were closed due to a multi-day winter storm.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum

FARGO — Keeping roads clear and safe this winter has been a bigger job than usual for plow operators and highway troopers given the large amount of snow, the number of times it’s fallen and the gusty winds that always make things worse.

Interstates, highways and county roads have been blocked by snow repeatedly and cleared, only for flakes to blow back in and plug up the roads again in a matter of days or even hours.

“We’ll either get snow or heavy wind, and we're right back to square one,” said Kent Leysring, maintenance superintendent for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

During the winter of 2022-2023 in North Dakota, Interstate 94 has been closed in various stretches on 20 different days, including three days for the blizzard and its aftermath this week, according to data from NDDOT.

A North Dakota Highway Patrol officer monitors the southbound Interstate 29 after its closure Tuesday afternoon, April 4, 2023, in south Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Just across the border in Minnesota, however, I-94 was closed over just two days this winter in the west-central region District 4, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said, and remained open with no travel advised during the storm this week.


It’s not an unusual scenario, when travelers at times are able to head east out of Moorhead, even when I-94 is shut down from Fargo to points west.

Why are interstates closed so much more often in North Dakota than in Minnesota?

The Forum took data from each state’s transportation department and tabulated the number of days that closures meant no travel on the interstates this winter and compared it to closures from the previous five winters.

The closures included are limited to "severe winter conditions," not "traffic incidents" where a semi might have jackknifed on an otherwise passable road and blocked traffic, for example.

Maintenance supervisors from North Dakota and Minnesota weighed in on why the road clearing challenges appear to be greater for the more western state.

Rigs left stranded

The blizzard this week left motorists stranded at various points along the interstates.

Truck driver Johnny Vasquez told WDAY if he knew it could get this bad in April, he would not have headed this way.

"I was watching the storm and unfortunately I got caught right before I could escape it," he said.


4423 I29closed.1
The North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) and North Dakota Highway Patrol closed Interstate 29 from Fargo to the South Dakota border on April 4. This is a southbound I-29 exit at 52nd Ave S in Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

The latest traffic standstill in North Dakota was among a total 20 days worth of closures on I-94 and 14 days on I-29 this winter, the bulk of which occurred since Jan. 1.

During the previous winter, the numbers were 9 for I-94 and 11 for I-29.

In the 2020-2021 winter, there were no interstate closures due to severe weather.

The three winters before that, the interstates shut down multiple times but nowhere near as often as this season.

In Minnesota, wintry weather has closed I-94 between Moorhead and Alexandria only a handful of times in the last five years, three of those years having no such closures, MnDOT said.

Paula Quam / The Forum

Justin Swiers, maintenance superintendent for MnDOT District 4, said once roads are plowed and a storm is over, crews will return and push snow back further with a bulldozer or blower to make more room for the next storm.

“Even when it's not snowing, we're preparing for the next one to make sure we can keep the road open,” Swiers said.

Crews in North Dakota may not be able to do that as well because of the state’s more wide open spaces and issue with high winds.


“I think that's the biggest reason why they shut down more often,” Swiers said.

High "cuts" or drifts that are revealed when snow is pulled back alongside the road create more problems when the wind starts to blow.

“The higher they get, the deeper it fills in,” Leysring said.

Favorable factors

Other factors that may make Minnesota’s interstates less likely to close than North Dakota’s during winter storms include more favorable topography and more trees.

Swiers noted there are also more towns along the I-94 corridor in Minnesota’s District 4 than in many parts of North Dakota.

In addition, Minnesota might have a little more “plow power,” he said, because of its larger population and the fact that winter road closures might affect more people and commerce.

Minnesota also has more snow fences, installed a certain distance away from the interstate in areas where the wind really has a tendency to blow.

Snow fences work by causing blowing snow to “lose its energy” and drop to the other side of the fence, he said.


Moorhead Snow Fence
A snow fence along Interstate 94 east of Moorhead, pictured in January 2019.
Jordan Ryan / WDAY

One such fence is on the north side of I-94 on the outskirts of Moorhead, which Swiers said has made a “night and day” difference in keeping road conditions from deteriorating in a once notoriously bad area.

While snow fences might not prevent a road closure or make a difference in a heavy, wet snowfall, they help in terms of visibility and in keeping blow ice from forming, he said.

North Dakota has some snow fences, Leysring said, including near West Fargo and Hillsboro, and the state has done quite a bit of study on them.

“We’ve got a lot of areas that study-wise would probably really help us, but it just hasn't taken off,” he said.

A truck drives down a road that is bordered by snow up to the side mirrors.
Westbound lane of I-94 between Jamestown and Valley City at mm 283, posted Thursday morning, April 6.
Contributed / North Dakota Highway Patrol

Leysring hopes the latest snow-related road closures are the last of the season.

It’s been a long winter for troopers, sheriff’s deputies and plow operators who also have to deal with vehicles stranded on secondary roads when interstates close.

Leysring said drivers should know that when roads are closed, plow drivers are trying as hard as they can to get them open safely.

“We've been running 14 hour days pretty much straight for the last month. Everyone’s tired … and wants to be with their family like everyone else,” he said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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