2023 started out snowy and cool, leading to a deep snowpack that produced widespread spring flooding across Minnesota as it melted. By mid-May, things dried out substantially, with bouts of occasionally very hot weather contributing to statewide drought conditions, as large fires in Canada brought thick smoke into the state at times. Heavy summer rains and severe thunderstorms events were hard to come by, but an outbreak of intense hailstorms on August 11th became a rare "Billion-Dollar Disaster." Beneficial rains during September and October reduced but did not erase drought conditions, and December featured a record-setting blast of holiday warmth and wetness, pushing the month to abnormal extremes to close out the year.
Snowy and wet winter into spring
A large snowstorm in early January became one of the 20 largest on record in the Twin Cities, with accumulations of up to 17 inches in some parts of central and eastern Minnesota. No Arctic air followed the storm, and the next major system to affect the state produced rainfall of over a half-inch, with a mixture of wet snow and sleet in southern and eastern Minnesota January 16th and 17th.
A relatively tranquil period followed for nearly four weeks, but was interrupted by a widespread Valentine's Day Soaker, which produced an inch of rain or more across eastern Minnesota. That wet system was followed within about a week by a major and highly anticipated winter storm, which produced 12-20 inches of snow and had been forecast accurately up to five days in advance. Another icy, slushy, and wet winter storm near the end of February helped the meteorological winter, December through February, finish among the wettest and snowiest on record in some parts of the state
The snowy and wet pattern did not confine itself to monthly cutoffs, with another central and northern Minnesota winter storm spilling into March, followed by a thundery snowfall several days later, an unusually potent "clipper"-type system five days after that, and another middling storm after 4-5 more days.
The wild pattern continued into April, as heavy rain, sleet, and "thunder-slush" was followed by a damaging wet snowfall event on April Fools' Day over the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota. Another spring storm lashed the state during the middle of the month, but the next major precipitation event came nearly a month later, as heavy rains produced major flooding in parts of southern Minnesota.
The wet period, which had begun in November, led to spring flooding across Minnesota, as the deep snowpack melted and ran off into streams and low-lying areas. On a statewide basis, November through April was the third wettest on record (since 1895), and the snowfall season was record-breaking at Duluth and St. Cloud.
The spigot turns off and drought returns
Following the rainfall barrage of mid-May in southern Minnesota, the region quickly fell under the influence of a high pressure ridge that cut off the flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, allowing brilliant sunshine and dry weather to prevail. Initially, many welcomed the dry conditions, because the wet spring had wrought havoc upon fields and gardens across the state. Over time, however, the dry spell became concerning, as it stretched from days into weeks. The period from May 15th through June 15th had never been so dry at a majority of Minnesota climate stations, including Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, and the Twin Cities, all of which measured less than 0.33 inches during that time, representing just 7-9% of normal precipitation. The dry conditions dominated Minnesota through August.
Dry conditions often came with hot weather, and the summer gradually racked up more hot days than is common, with parts of southern Minnesota more-than-doubling the typical numbers of 90-degree F days. In the Twin Cities, 33 days reached or exceeded 90 degrees F during 2023, tying it for the 5th most on record.
Three major heat waves were particularly noteworthy: on August 21-23, the state experienced one of the most intense humid heat events on record. Another heat wave over Labor Day weekend broke a slew of hot weather records across the region. Lastly, a historic late-season heat wave that crept into October had the beaches bustling while forcing the cancellation of the Twin Cities Marathon.
The heat and the lack of precipitation led to high levels of drought building back into Minnesota for the third straight year. Although Minnesota did have instances of soaking or heavy thunderstorm rains during June, July, and August, in each of those months, more than 90% of the state had below-normal precipitation, often short by half or more.
Smoke-filled air and skies
The dry conditions covered much of the eastern half of the US, along with a swath of southern and central Canada. Wildfires raged, particularly in Canada, and the flow patterns in the atmosphere occasionally brought smoke from those fires into Minnesota. The two most noteworthy smoke events occurred on May 18th and June 14th, with the latter producing the worst daily average air quality values on record in the Twin Cities.
One big thunderstorm outbreak, and little else
It was a quiet year for thunderstorm activity in Minnesota, thanks to drought conditions building the wrong atmospheric profiles for storm development. It was quite a contrast from the previous year: whereas 2022 had a bumper crop of severe weather outbreaks during May, 2023 went weeks at times during the summer without so much as an isolated thunderstorm. Aside from a rather strong storm complex in July, there really was just one significant thunderstorm event, on August 11th, but it packed a punch. Barrages of large hail affecting much of central and southern Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, produced over one billion dollars in hail damage that evening.
The intense drought of 2023 reached peak strength during September, but a widespread heavy precipitation event from the 23rd to the 25th put the first dents in it. It was a strange month, beginning hot and ending hot, but with dry conditions giving way to wetter and wetter ones. It was the warmest September on record in the Twin Cities, and in the top-5 or top-10 almost everywhere else. In Duluth, it was also extremely wet, with over 10 inches of rain falling during the month.
October produced soaking rains on the 13th-14th, with another widespread rain, wind, and even snow event from the 23rd through the 28th, and then ended the month with a Halloween snowfall that many presumed to be the evidence of an active early winter. This would not be true. What was true was that the drought had been reduced by 1-3 categories by the healthy precipitation of September and October.
Ending on a record note
November was mild, generally sunny, and very dry in all but the northeastern third of the state, where precipitation was normal to above-normal. The dry and warm conditions in most areas allowed the early autumn rains to work through the soil, and by the end of the month, concerns about worsening drought conditions re-emerged. Normal precipitation in November around Minnesota only averages about 1.3 inches, however, and the the 50-75% deficits during the month did not represent a major loss of actual precipitation.
December began warm and remained warm throughout, and although it followed in November's dryness for the first couple weeks of the month, a bizarrely wet holiday heat wave set a frenzy of temperature, humidity, and precipitation records, and made December 2023 perhaps the most extreme month on record in Minnesota. As the month drew to a close, all communities had experienced from zero, up to at most three cooler-than-normal days, snow cover could scarcely be found, and many large or deep lakes had shore-to-shore open water.
2023 ended up much warmer than normal throughout Minnesota, making the top-10 at or top-15 at most locations. Precipitation totals varied widely around the state, though with drier-than-normal conditions on average. Duluth, however, had 32.99 inches of precipitation, which is in the upper 25% of all years. The Twin Cities, St. Cloud, and Rochester all finished in the upper half of their respective precipitation histories. International Falls, on the other hand, finished below the 35th percentile, and the three-generation observatory at Milan, in western Minnesota, finished drier than about 67% of all years in its record.
See how climatologists, meteorologists, and enthusiasts ranked the top-five events or stories of 2023, here!
Revised January 10, 2024