Top Weather and Climate Stories of the 2010s

high water
Scenes of flooded streams like this one, from Minnehaha creek on May 8, 2019, became increasingly common across Minnesota during the 2010s.
Credit: Minnesota DNR State Climatology Office

The 2010s began with a severe weather barrage, pivoted towards heat and drought, and then finished with a spate of precipitation records, punctuating the wettest period on record in Minnesota. Toss in the 1st, 2nd, and 5th warmest, as well as the 7th coldest extended winters on record, and add to that some impressive late-winter snowfall statistics, and the decade had more than a typical share of variety and extremes.

After considering all of the normal ups, downs, and surprises we expect from Minnesota's climate, two main themes appear to dominate the decade's big stories: aggressive precipitation increases, and winter swinging wildly between historically warm, very cold, and very snowy. Following is a quick summary of the top weather and climate highlights from each year of the 2010s.

Please note that these highlights represent what stands out most at the end of the decade, and may differ from what was voted on as "top event" of the year at the time.

 

2010: Tornado!

The 2010 warm season did not begin on a particularly active note, but everything changed on June 17th, when the largest tornado outbreak on record in Minnesota produced 48 confirmed tornadoes in the state. The tornadoes produced heavy damage in northwestern, central, and far southern Minnesota, with three of them rated as EF-4 ("devastating") on the Enhanced Fujita scale. No outbreak since April 30, 1967 had produced that many EF-4 tornadoes, and with three Minnesotans losing their lives to these storms, this was the first multi-fatality tornado event since March 29, 1998. The deaths were not only caused by separate tornadoes, but by separate tornadoes from separate storms--also quite unusual for this region.

The tornado season did not end on June 17th, but instead continued in full force for the remainder of summer, with several other multi-tornado days, including one on August 7th that produced another rare EF-4 tornado.

Minnesota's final annual tornado count of 113 was the highest in the nation for the first time on record, and prompted some to wonder if this would be a "new normal" amidst the changing climate. Both the outbreak and the highly active year overall, however, proved to be the exception rather than the rule: no Minnesota tornado for the remainder of the decade attained even an EF-3 rating, meaning that after the tornado barrage of 2010, the state went into the longest "severe tornado drought" on record, back to the 1870s. 

Apart from the tornado activity, an enormous autumn rainfall event grabbed headlines, as did a massive December snowstorm that helped the month finish as the snowiest December on record at many stations.

 

2011: New Heat Severity Records

Like many other years this decade, 2011 offered up a lot of contenders for the main story of the year, including a deadly tornado that tore through Minneapolis on May 22 (the same day that Joplin, MO was struck by one of the deadliest tornadoes in US history), and a record-setting 121 mph wind speed measured during a very severe thunderstorm on September 1, near Donaldson in Kittson County.

In climatological hindsight, however, the biggest story of the year unfolded during the middle of July, as a potent heat wave took hold over the region. The Twin Cities had three consecutive days with 80-degree dew point readings, and on July 19th broke its all-time record with an 82 F dew point. Combined with a 95 F air temperature, this led to a heat index value of 119 F, the highest known on record for any hourly observation back to 1903.

On the same day, Moorhead, MN set a statewide dew point record of 88 degrees F. Moorhead's outstandingly high readings were likely linked to local agricultural influences, but also came during the same oppressive heat wave had had broken records in the Twin Cities. Although heat index records throughout Minnesota are difficult to establish because of short periods of record, the 134 F value at Moorhead is easily the highest documented heat index value in the state.

Similar to the tornado concerns prompted by 2010, many feared that this incredible July heat wave would define a new era in Minnesota's climate, in which dew point and heat index extremes would become more common--and more extreme. However, like the 2010 outbreak, the July 2011 heat wave remains an outlier, and heat extremes have not yet (as of 2019) become more common or more extreme in Minnesota. In fact, it took the Twin Cities exactly 8 years before another 80F dew point was observed.

 

2012: Extreme Winter Warmth (Especially March)

Minnesota began 2012 with a thin snow cover that mostly vanished during the first 10 days of January, when temperatures climbed into the low 60s in western parts of the state, and into the 50s and upper 40s elsewhere. Light jackets, shirt sleeves, and outdoor mid-day gatherings became hallmarks of January and February, but March 2012 took warming to another level, as many stations broke more records than any month since July of 1936.

Duluth, International Falls, Rochester, St. Cloud, and the Twin Cities broke a combined 87 daily high and warm-minimum (or "highest low") temperature records during March. The run of warmth produced the highest minimum temperature ever recorded during March at each of those five stations, along with a summer-like high temperature of 79 F at International Falls on March 18th, the earliest 80 F high temperatures on record at Rochester and the Twin Cities, and even the earliest 60 F dew points on record for the Twin Cities. No other March back to 1895 comes within 2.5 degrees of Minnesota's average temperature during March 2012. 

The balmy March put the finishing touches on a very warm winter, and November 2011 through March 2012 finished as the warmest on record for the state. The warm and generally dry conditions led to a snow-drought that resulted in most of the state receiving just 25-50% of normal snowfall for the entire winter.  Minnesota was not done with its warm winters either: both 2015-16, and 2016-17 would land in the top-five for warmth as well.

Another major story that year was the catastrophic flood in Duluth and northeastern Minnesota, coming at the beginning of a summer that turned out the be the warmest one since 1988.

 

2013: Active, Stormy, and Late Winter

The 2012-13 winter had been uneventful by Minnesota standards, but then everything changed during February, when the state began a nearly-weekly diet of winter storms that lasted into the first week of May. Between February and April, full winter's worth of snow (or more) fell at many locations , including Duluth, which clocked in with 95.7 inches during that stretch. The April 2013 snowfall total of 50.8 inches at Duluth still stands the city's greatest total for any month on record.

After the lackluster winter of 2011-12, the lateness and ferocity of this one caught Minnesotans off-guard, as they struggled to remember how to cope with traffic snarls, road closures, and school releases. The late-breaking and slow-departing winter's many tricks included a disastrous ice storm on April 9-10 in southwestern Minnesota, a foot-plus snowstorm over the Northland on April 18-19, record cold across the state on April 20, and perhaps the state's largest May snowstorm on record during the first few days of that month. The winter lasted long enough to produce some of the latest ice-out dates on record on Minnesota lakes. It also set the stage for a more "classical" winter the following year.

 

2014: Old-Fashioned Winter

cold night
One of the many subzero nights outside Two Harbors during January of 2014.
Photo Credit: Alec Johnson, AC Johnson Fine Art Photography; used with permission

Winter stole the show once again, this time with a legendary performance that spanned six months. Minnesota certainly has seen colder and snowier winters, but few can match 2013-14 for its combined duration, severity, and persistence. 

Technically, the story began in late November 2013, as temperatures began a below-normal tumble that dominated the entire region through April. By winter's end, a handful of stations in far northern Minnesota had been to 0 degrees F or lower at least 100 times. The Twin Cities had done so 53 times. A cold outbreak on January 5-7 introduced a whole generation to the term "Polar Vortex," as wind chills fell into the -40s and -50s behind a sharp cold front that dove from the Arctic into the Gulf of Mexico. Severe cold outbreaks and blizzards in rural Minnesota defined the winter, and by the end of February the snow in the Twin Cities was the deepest it had been since January of 1982, with much of eastern Minnesota in the 95th to 99th percentile for snow depth.

The extended November - March winter was the 7th coldest on record for the state. Given the general trend towards warmer winters recently, this was also the most "abruptly cold" winter on record: no winter was as cold compared its predecessors as 2014. Given the extreme winter warmth just two years earlier and also two years later, this also marked the sharpest 2-year drop in November to March temperatures on record, followed by the largest 2-year increase as well.

2014 was also notable for its historically wet June, which no hydrologist or water manager will forget for years or decades. Punctuated by six separate heavy rainfall events that damaged infrastructure, caused landslides, and flooded rural and urban areas alike, June 2014 stands out, by far, as Minnesota's wettest month on record

 

2015: Pleasant Summer, Warm Fall, and Mild Early Winter

Most of the stories here trigger specific memories among Minnesotans. 2015 was a different, however, because few people seem to remember it. It lacked true extremes of heat or cold, was light on tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, and produced few major floods or snowstorms.

In fact, the biggest story was the lack of noteworthy weather, or put another way, how nice it seemed for much of the year. June had an abundance of clear, crisp days, with highs in the 70s and lows near 60, and finished as the "most glorious" June on record in the Twin Cities, with summer finishing in the top-5. Both September and December were record-warm for Minnesota, and when you throw in the 6th warmest November as well, the four-month September-to-December period for 2015 easily tops the charts in the temperature department.

The pleasant summer led to what were at the time record agricultural yields, but the warm fall and early winter hurt ice-fishing and many of the winter resorts that depend on it. So the year's generally "nice" weather had mixed appeal throughout the state.

 

2016: Warm, Stormy, and Wet

radar loop of heavy rain and severe weather event, July 11-12, 2016
6 hour Radar loop capturing central Minnesota tornadoes and mega-rainfall event of July 11-12, 2016.
 
Source: College of DuPage
 

2016 was quite a year. It was the 5th warmest on record for the state and the 3rd wettest (at the time it was second wettest). Out of 125 years on record, no other is even close to 2016 for combined warmth and wetness. Even with the warmth, there was little in the way of excessive heat.  

The year was very stormy, with many areas in the southern part of the state observing 50 or more thunderstorms, which struck in every month except January. In the northern parts of the state, fallen trees, power outages and structural damage seemed to occur weekly during the summer. The storms brought intense rains as well, the largest and most widespread of which occurred July 11-12 and August 10-11-- the two final "mega" rainfalls of the decade. 

The stormy year led to Waseca breaking Minnesota's all-time annual precipitation record, although that record was broken again in 2018.

 

2017: Spring Comes Early

The 2016-17 winter was already warm, but got a boost from a record-setting surge of February heat. The warm spell helped make the  extended November 2016 to March 2017 winter the 5th warmest out of 125, and third this decade to place in the top-5 (2011-12 is #1 and 2015-16 is #2). The warm conditions led to ice-out dates on some Minnesota lakes that were 2-4 weeks early.

With the early spring came other, more dangerous out-of-season weather, in the form of tornadoes. On March 6, a large regional outbreak of severe weather produced three tornadoes in Minnesota, breaking the record for earliest tornado in the state by a whopping 12 days.

If a dull winter defined the beginning of 2017, then it's worth mentioning that the year ended with the coldest final week of the year in over a century, and winter would return to prominence in 2018 and 2019.

 

2018: Thunder Blizzard and a New Precipitation Champ

After racking up 50-75% snowfall deficits through December 2017, winter took a snowy turn in January and never looked back. By the end of April, the majority of the state had above-normal snowfall for the season, with some stations in southern Minnesota setting all-time records.

A series of snowstorms affected Minnesota from mid-January through late April, but the incomparable "Thunder Blizzard" of April 13-16 stands out from the pack. Beginning with damaging thunderstorms in southwest Minnesota and followed by multiple waves of intense, wind-driven thundersnow, this magnificent storm produced whiteout conditions throughout southern and central Minnesota, right into the heart of the Twin Cities, which the National Weather Services covered with a Blizzard Warning for the first time since the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. With total accumulations commonly between 12 and 20 inches, the storm produced nearly 2,000 traffic incidents, closed numerous roads in all directions, halted flights at MSP for the better part of a day, and forced cancellation of three consecutive Minnesota Twins home games. Thanks in no small part to this storm, stations across southern and central Minnesota had the snowiest April on record.

The weather turned very hot by the end of May, and precipitation generally ran slightly above normal for the rest of the year on a statewide basis. In far southeastern Minnesota, however, the rains came frequently and heavily, and in another major climate news story, the town of Harmony ended up shattering the annual precipitation record that had been set in Waseca just two years earlier.

 

2019: A Winter Blast, and More Record Wetness

cold morning
Bitter cold scene from the cold outbreak of January 27-31, 2019
Courtesy: Minnesota DNR State Climatology Office

Like its predecessor, 2019 began in the midst of a lackluster winter that had been mild and generally short on snow. Then came a shot of cold air so fierce that even US Post Offices closed. The late-January cold outbreak had both extremely cold air, and unusually strong winds--given the depth of the cold. As a result, from January 27th through 31st, Minnesota saw air temperatures tumble to their lowest readings in over two decades, and on January 30th specifically, the wind chill temperatures reached levels not experienced since the 1980s in some areas. The cold was more severe in every respect than the infamous "Polar Vortex" outbreak of January 2014.

The cold weather was followed by one of the greatest onslaughts of winter storms on record in Minnesota. Between February 3rd and 12th, five separate major snowfall events struck Minnesota, with 15-25 inches accumulating over most of the state during those ten days. After a one-week "break," the heavy snows resumed, culminating in one of the state's great modern-era blizzards on February 22nd-24th. The month ended as the snowiest February on record over much of the state.

The snowy conditions continued through spring, eventually giving way to rainy conditions, and precipitation surpluses dominated the remainder of the year. There were no "mega rains," and although Harmony's statewide station record from 2018 remained intact, 2019 finished as Minnesota's wettest year on record (back to 1895).

 

Last modified: January 11, 2020