Blizzard, December 23, 2020

snow picture
Gusty winds and falling snow reduced visibility to a few hundred feet in this St. Paul neighborhood on December 23, 2020.
Courtesy: Minnesota State Climatology Office

It wasn't the snow, it was the wind with the snow that made the 2020 "Holiday Lights Howler" such a spectacular storm.

One of the most intense winter storms in recent years brought blistering waves of heavy, wind-driven snow to much of Minnesota on December 23rd, creating widespread whiteout conditions, shutting down highways, and damaging holiday light displays across the state.

Early on Wednesday December 23rd, a low pressure system in South Dakota began interacting with three separate and potent air flows: one carrying cold air from central Canada, one providing strong winds aloft, and one carrying copious moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Each air flow reinforced the others, resulting in a rapidly intensifying and highly energetic storm that was unusually cold, windy, and moist.

Temperatures fell out of the 40s, through the 30s, 20s, and into the 10s, as drizzle gave way to rain, then sleet, and then snow. The storm reached peak intensity between 1 PM and 9PM, as a wall of powerful winds and blinding snow marched eastward across the state. Many areas experienced six hours or more of moderate or heavy snowfall, wind gusts in excess of 45 mph, and visibility below a quarter-mile.

Whiteout conditions dominated open areas, and even spread into the urban areas during the afternoon and evening, prompting the National Weather Service to cover 70 of Minnesota's 87 counties with Blizzard Warnings, possibly the greatest coverage of such warnings on record. These Blizzard Warnings included the core of the Twin Cities for just the third time in the past 30 years. The other two instances were both locally infamous: the Halloween Blizzard of 1991, and the "Thunder Blizzard" of April 2018.

The wind, snow, and falling temperatures produced dangerous travel conditions, closing thousands of miles of roads in western, central, southwestern, and southern parts of the state. The National Guard was deployed to assist stranded travelers in Martin and also Renville County, where Emergency Management had reported closed roads, stranded drivers, and hotels already full. The Minnesota State Patrol reported over 1000 accidents and spinouts, and around 40 jack-knifed semi trucks during the storm.

The drizzle and light rain earlier in the day "flash-froze" in the cold air, creating problems for power lines once the snow and strong winds began. Power utilities reported thousands of outages on Wednesday evening.

The storm was especially damaging to outdoor holiday decorations across the state, as residential and commercial displays were blown from their mountings, and plastic yard figurines proved no match for the tropical storm-force winds. The Bentleyville USA Tour of Lights in Duluth suffered extensive damage across its entire complex. The damage to these displays is somewhat ironic, given that many Minnesotans had been waiting for snow to complete the holiday scene across the state.

The storm was basically a "half-footer," with reports of 4-8 inches reported from Worthington, Mankato and Owatonna, up through the Twin Cities, and northward towards Duluth. Reports of 8-9 inches were common in the northwestern half of Twin Cities, with local maximum values of 9.5 inches reported by a CoCoRaHS observers near East Bethel and Coon Rapids, and 8.8 inches reported officially at the Twin Cities International Airport. South of Duluth, near the border with Wisconsin,  a CoCoRaHS observer near Wrenshall reported 12.3 inches, and the public reported 13 near Holyoke.

By far, however, the biggest story with the storm was the winds, and especially the strongest winds blowing while the heaviest snow was falling. Strong winds are common in Minnesota, especially in the west and far south, and near Lake Superior. Heavy snow is also common in Minnesota. It takes a powerful and unusual storm, however, to bring the two together simultaneously. Gusts of over 55 mph lashed all but the far north and northwestern parts of the state, with most areas recording their strongest winds while also receiving their heaviest snow. The Bay of Grand Marais station recorded 70 and 66 mph gusts during the afternoon, Redwood Falls recorded 68 and 63 mph gusts, and dozens of stations, including the Twin Cities airport, recorded wind gusts of 58 mph or greater, which is the threshold for severe thunderstorm warnings during the warm season. In other words, this system produced multiple hours of severe thunderstorm-like winds over the majority of Minnesota.

The storm was notable not just for the brutal winter conditions, but also for the warm and humid air that preceded them. The dew point temperature at MSP climbed to 39 F, a record high value for December 23. Morning temperatures across southern Minnesota were in the middle and upper 40s F. By the the final observations of the day, those temperatures had tumbled by 35-45 degrees, with many areas finishing the day at or below zero.

The storm also ended a 6-week snow-drought that had left most of the state facing the very real prospects of a dreaded "brown Christmas." After the storm transformed the landscape, however, NOAA's National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center showed over 95% of the state having at least an inch of snow on the ground as of December 24. The Twin Cities had been on track for one the least snowy Decembers on record, but then received nearly month's-worth of snow in one day.

The following statements from National Weather Service offices summarize the peak wind speeds and snowfall totals recorded in Minnesota during this storm.

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT  
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TWIN CITIES/CHANHASSEN MN  
1137 PM CST WED DEC 23 2020  
   
..HIGHEST WIND REPORTS FROM DECEMBER 23RD  
  
LOCATION                     SPEED     TIME/DATE                              
REDWOOD FALLS AP             68 MPH    0653 PM 12/23                          
CRYSTAL AP                   66 MPH    0353 PM 12/23                          
MADISON AP                   63 MPH    1255 PM 12/23                          
MONTEVIDEO AP                62 MPH    0615 PM 12/23                          
MARIETTA 5SSW                62 MPH    1110 AM 12/23                          
FAIRMONT AP                  61 MPH    0556 PM 12/23                          
CLARA CITY 2WSW              61 MPH    0600 PM 12/23                          
APPLETON AP                  60 MPH    1053 AM 12/23                          
MORRIS AP                    60 MPH    0215 PM 12/23                          
WINSTED                      58 MPH    0422 PM 12/23                          
BENSON AP                    58 MPH    0735 PM 12/23                          
GRANITE FALLS AP             58 MPH    0415 PM 12/23                          
MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL AP      58 MPH    0653 PM 12/23                          
HANSKA                       57 MPH    0700 PM 12/23                          
HANLEY FALLS MN-23 MILE POST 57 MPH    0200 PM 12/23                          
COON RAPIDS                  56 MPH    0430 PM 12/23                          
SPRINGFIELD                  55 MPH    0731 PM 12/23                          
WILLMAR AP                   55 MPH    0635 PM 12/23                          
EDEN PRAIRIE AP              54 MPH    0253 PM 12/23                          
OLIVIA AP                    54 MPH    0555 PM 12/23                          
MANKATO AP                   53 MPH    0556 PM 12/23                          
ST. PAUL DWTN AP             53 MPH    0353 PM 12/23                          
NEW ULM AP                   53 MPH    0715 PM 12/23                          
MAYER 1NE                    53 MPH    0405 PM 12/23                          
STARBUCK 8SSW                53 MPH    0650 PM 12/23                          
ST. CLOUD AP                 52 MPH    0453 PM 12/23                          
BELGRADE 3ESE                52 MPH    1220 PM 12/23                          
HILLMAN                      51 MPH    0328 PM 12/23                          
ALEXANDRIA MN ASOS           51 MPH    0253 PM 12/23                          
HUTCHINSON AP                51 MPH    0315 PM 12/23                          
LITCHFIELD AP                51 MPH    0255 PM 12/23                          
ALEXANDRIA 2SSE              50 MPH    1202 PM 12/23                          
NEW GERMANY 1NW              50 MPH    0300 PM 12/23                          
RED WING 4W                  50 MPH    0605 PM 12/23                          
EDINA                        49 MPH    0301 PM 12/23                          
SAUK CENTRE AP               49 MPH    0535 PM 12/23                          
WASECA 1SSE                  49 MPH    0735 PM 12/23                          
CANNON FALLS 7SSE            49 MPH    1140 PM 12/22                          
LYDIA                        48 MPH    0348 PM 12/23                          
LITCHFIELD 3S                48 MPH    0711 PM 12/23                          
SAUK RAPIDS                  47 MPH    0243 PM 12/23                          
VICTORIA                     47 MPH    0330 PM 12/23                          
SILVER LAKE 3E               47 MPH    0250 PM 12/23                          
OWATONNA AP                  46 MPH    0553 PM 12/23                          
GANOE HILL                   46 MPH    0807 PM 12/23                          
SKYLINE 2E                   45 MPH    0356 PM 12/23                          
COON RAPIDS                  45 MPH    0150 PM 12/23                          
MONTICELLO                   45 MPH    0430 PM 12/23                          
GLENWOOD AP                  45 MPH    0155 PM 12/23                          
MENOMONIE AP                 45 MPH    0815 PM 12/23                          
MAPLE LAKE AP                45 MPH    0235 PM 12/23                          
PAYNESVILLE AP               45 MPH    0515 PM 12/23                          
TWIN LAKES 5SE               45 MPH    0920 PM 12/23                          
SAUK CENTRE 2SE              45 MPH    0555 PM 12/23                          
BURNSVILLE 2NNW              45 MPH    0545 PM 12/23                          
ELLENDALE 5NNE               45 MPH    0906 PM 12/23    

---

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT  
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TWIN CITIES/CHANHASSEN MN  
132 AM CST THU DEC 24 2020  
   
..PRELIMINARY SNOWFALL REPORTS FROM DECEMBER 23RD, 2020  
  
LOCATION                     AMOUNT    TIME/DATE                              
   
..MINNESOTA  
  
   
..CARVER COUNTY  
  
1 SW CHANHASSEN              8.2 IN    1200 AM 12/24                          
3 SW CARVER                  7.5 IN    0430 PM 12/23                          
   
..DAKOTA COUNTY  
  
5 SE HASTINGS                7.0 IN    1150 PM 12/23                          
4 NNE MIESVILLE              5.9 IN    0700 PM 12/23                          
4 SW LAKEVILLE               5.5 IN    0710 PM 12/23                          
LAKEVILLE                    5.0 IN    1100 PM 12/23                          
   
..HENNEPIN COUNTY  
  
3 E RICHFIELD                8.7 IN    1200 AM 12/24                          
2 NNE MINNEAPOLIS            4.7 IN    0700 PM 12/23                          
1 ENE PLYMOUTH               4.0 IN    0430 PM 12/23                          
   
..ISANTI COUNTY  
  
SPRING LAKE                  6.8 IN    0853 PM 12/23                          
   
..NICOLLET COUNTY  
  
NORTH MANKATO                5.0 IN    0750 PM 12/23                          
   
..SIBLEY COUNTY  
  
WINTHROP                     5.0 IN    0850 PM 12/23                          
   
..STEARNS COUNTY  
  
7 SE PLEASANT LAKE           3.2 IN    0555 PM 12/23                          
   
..STEELE COUNTY  
  
1 NNW OWATONNA               6.0 IN    0755 PM 12/23                          
   
..WASECA COUNTY  
  
1 NE WASECA                  4.0 IN    0500 PM 12/23                          
   
---
PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT  
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DULUTH MN  
1113 AM CST THU DEC 24 2020  
   
..HIGHEST WIND REPORTS OVER LAST 24 HOURS  
  
LOCATION                     SPEED     TIME/DATE       PROVIDER               
GRAND MARAIS                 70 MPH    0656 PM 12/23   NDBC                   
1 SSE SILVER BAY             66 MPH    0540 PM 12/23   NDBC                   
DULUTH HARBOR                60 MPH    0536 PM 12/23   NOS-NWLON              
CLOQUET AIRPORT              58 MPH    0535 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
BRAINERD AIRPORT             56 MPH    0653 PM 12/23   ASOS                   
DULUTH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT 55 MPH    0655 PM 12/23   ASOS                   
DULUTH SKY HARBOR AIRPORT    54 MPH    0415 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
BLATNIK BRIDGE SOUTH ABUTMEN 53 MPH    0619 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
DEVILS ISLAND                53 MPH    0500 PM 12/23   NDBC                   
BLATNIK BRIDGE               52 MPH    0551 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
ATKINSON BRIDGE I-35 MILE PO 47 MPH    0510 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
CHISHOLM-HIBBING AIRPORT     47 MPH    0749 PM 12/23   ASOS                   
DULUTH I-35 AND GARFIELD RWI 45 MPH    0228 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
GRAND MARAIS AIRPORT         45 MPH    0855 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
GRAND RAPIDS AIRPORT         45 MPH    0656 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
MCGREGOR AIRPORT             45 MPH    0635 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
CASS LAKE US-2 MILE POST 131 44 MPH    0220 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
MOOSE LAKE AIRPORT           44 MPH    0555 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
DULUTH 1.8 NE                43 MPH    0616 PM 12/23   CWOP                   
1 WSW VIRGINIA               42 MPH    0521 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
ANDERSON ROAD RWIS           41 MPH    0435 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
INTERNATIONAL FALLS AIRPORT  40 MPH    0354 PM 12/23   ASOS                   
HIBBING RAWS                 39 MPH    0907 PM 12/23   RAWS                   
PLINY MN-65 MILE POST 98     39 MPH    0135 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
1 N PORT WING                39 MPH    0240 AM 12/24   NDBC                   
WALKER MN AWOS               39 MPH    1155 AM 12/23   AWOS                   
BRAINERD RAWS                38 MPH    1206 PM 12/23   RAWS                   
HINCKLEY AIRPORT             38 MPH    0455 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
NORTHOME                     38 MPH    1015 PM 12/23   CWOP                   
ST. CROIX RAWS               38 MPH    0515 PM 12/23   RAWS                   
4 NE DULUTH                  37 MPH    0533 PM 12/23   CWOP                   
MITCHELL BRIDGE MN-169 MILE  37 MPH    0720 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
AITKIN AIRPORT               36 MPH    0215 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
EVELETH-VIRGINIA AIRPORT     36 MPH    1255 AM 12/24   AWOS                   
ISABELLA RAWS                36 MPH    0804 PM 12/23   RAWS                   
LA POINTE AIRPORT            36 MPH    0535 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
LIND RAWS                    36 MPH    0706 PM 12/23   RAWS                   
PINE RIVER AIRPORT           36 MPH    0119 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
COTTON US-53 MILE POST 41    35 MPH    0126 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
HILL CITY RAWS               35 MPH    0607 PM 12/23   RAWS                   
SUPERIOR AIRPORT             35 MPH    0335 PM 12/23   AWOS                   
TWIG MN-53 MILE POST 21      35 MPH    0220 PM 12/23   MNDOT                  
  
OBSERVATIONS ARE COLLECTED FROM A VARIETY OF SOURCES WITH VARYING  
EQUIPMENT AND EXPOSURES. WE THANK ALL VOLUNTEER WEATHER OBSERVERS   
FOR THEIR DEDICATION. NOT ALL DATA LISTED ARE CONSIDERED OFFICIAL. 

 

Last modified December 24, 2020.