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Wild Weather: Mother Nature Deals an Inconsistent Hand

“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” The old adage holds true in the Upper Midwest, where recent weather patterns have farmers and ranchers watching the skies, readying fire fighting rigs and calling insurance adjusters.

After 2019 brought an abnormally high amount of precipitation to many states in the region, 2020 started out dry in some areas and as the year progressed the circle of drought widened. According to U.S. Drought Monitor Maps prepared by the National Drought Mitigation Center/University of Nebraska-Lincoln, by mid-June much of the western Dakotas, eastern Montana, and Wyoming were experiencing abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions while much of Colorado was in a severe drought. By late June even areas in eastern North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa were abnormally dry.

Early July storm systems brought much welcomed moisture to some of these areas, but not consistently. These storms also brought hail and tornadoes, certainly less than welcome but to be expected when the thunderheads roll.

Bruce and Vickie Troester had a close call at their ranch near Marsland, Nebraska, on the evening of July 2, 2020. A storm was moving through the area so they were parking pickups and haying machinery in the shops to avoid hail damage when things got more serious. They were still at the sheds watching the storm when they saw a tornado approaching.

“We heard the warning that there was baseball sized hail in the storm, so we were trying to park the pickup and swather in the sheds so they wouldn’t get damaged,” Vickie said. “We didn’t make it to the house before it hit, so we were standing there watching the hail when we looked south and saw a tornado approaching. It looked like it was headed straight for the yard. I ran for the house to look at the weather warnings but my husband and our sons were trying to get the doors shut on the sheds so they didn’t follow me. The power went out about then because the tornado snapped off some power poles so I couldn’t get anything. I wasn’t going to the basement without them so I stood there and watched it. It was probably two and a half or three minutes from when we saw it until it hit.”

The tornado, rated an EF-2 on the Fujita scale, clocked winds up to 115 miles per hour and traveled for about 3.4 miles before it dissipated just north of Troesters’ place. Thankfully, their home and buildings were not damaged, but the twister did extensive damage to their shelter belt, uprooted lots of cottonwood trees and mangled their center pivot. Troesters couldn’t see the tornado as it passed because it traveled outside their shelter belt and the trees blocked their view. They got one photo of the cyclone; neighbors to the north recorded the whole thing.

“It would have been bad if it had hit the place,” Vickie said. “It totally destroyed the pivot. Our irrigation guy came and looked at it and he said he had never seen one that badly damaged.”

Troesters are picking up the pieces, literally, gathering the scattered limbs of trees out of their hayfield and cleaning up the debris from the storm. But they’re thankful to be alive and glad the damage wasn’t worse.

“It just about took us off the map before we saw it,” Vickie said.

Other storms produced tornadoes in Wyoming and South Dakota on July 6 and July 10 along with tennis ball to greater than baseball sized hail and winds up to eighty miles per hour. These twisters all stayed in rural areas so there was no significant loss of property from them.

Hail that came with rains in other parts of the region has caused significant crop and pasture damage; the storms brought a mixed bag to farmers and ranchers desperately needing moisture for the crops and summer grazing acres that are now shredded.

And some areas are still watching the pastures turn brown and the grass get more brittle with every day that passes, watching the clouds pass without the rain so desperately needed.

In Harding County, South Dakota, just north of Buffalo, Dale Turbiville is watching the skies and keeping his fire fighting rigs on the ready. A member of the Ludlow Fire Department, he has already been to numerous fires in the area and it doesn’t look like he will be done any time soon.

“We’ve been called to fires two days straight now,” Turbiville said. “It’s to the point that it’s going to be hard to get anything done at home because every day you have to run off to a fire. A neighbor started two last week with his swather.”

During the period where nearby areas saw several inches of rainfall in early July, Turbiville said that his place got less than a quarter of an inch of rain all together. The skies clouded up but held the rain back over an area around Buffalo, South Dakota. Just a few miles away the rains were enough to turn things around but Turbiville says his pastures are brown and brittle.

“Most of the pastures in the area are so-so,” he said. “They did better than one would think given the shortness of moisture, perhaps due to remaining subsoil moisture from last year. There’s a lot of clover this year, and there is a lot of old grass out there from last year.”

The clover and old grass are a boon for foraging livestock but a bane for the firefighters if a prairie fire gets started.

“Clover is explosive when it’s dry and that old grass will go like crazy,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of lightning already but thankfully no lightning fires; it rained just enough of a sprinkle with the lightning that nothing started up.”

Southeastern Montana is in a similar condition. Danelle Stiegelmeier, Broadus, Montana, said they probably haven’t seen an inch of rain altogether in the last three months.

“Now we have grasshoppers eating everything,” she said. “It’s not good here. We’ve had a waft of moisture recently but that’s about it.”

So farmers and ranchers continue to watch the skies: some looking heavenward in gratitude and relief, some with fear and foreboding of what might come next, and some on the lookout for fires.

If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes or drive a few miles. It will change.


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