Cold, snow a continued theme

By Jason Ferguson

Neither falling snow nor four-degree temperatures kept these hardy sledders from sledding on Pageant Hill last Monday afternoon. Around six inches of snow fell in the Custer area Sunday overnight and more snow and frigid temperatures covered the area on Monday, bringing the total snowfall to nine inches.

How many days until summer?

Custer County has been battered by Old Man Winter in recent months, as below- average temperatures and seemingly constant snow continue to have a stranglehold on the area, as evidenced by Sunday and Monday’s storm that dropped another nine inches of snow.

If you think it’s snowed more than usual, you’re sort of right. It’s definitely snowed more this winter than the past few winters, but, according to Keith Sherburn, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City, the Hills are seeing what amounts to a normal winter.

“I think it has been a little dry the last few years and now we are seeing normal snowfall for the year,” he said. “People got a false sense of security with drier years in the past.”

Custer received above-average precipitation in January, with .48 inches,  compared to the typical average of .33. In February 1.82 inches has already been received with a week to go in the month, well above the average of .70. Last December, Custer received 1.08 inches of precipitation, also well above the average of .37.

That may be hard for people to believe since one of the largest forest fires in the history of the Black Hills erupted in December. Since the Legion Lake Fire, however, all it has done in Custer County is snow and snow some more.

It’s been cold, as well. December had below average high and low temperatures by about four and one degree, respectively. January had almost average temperatures, but February has been significantly colder than normal. The average high for February in Custer is 38 degrees, while the average low is 17. So far this year, those numbers have been 29 and 3.

It’s been even colder in some areas, as the Hills played host to a number of temperature inversions in the past month. Custer has frequently been warmer than Rapid City over the past few weeks, and on one day, one side of Rapid City was 20 degrees warmer than the other.

Inversions happen, Sherburn said, when cold air moves into the area quickly near the surface, without much to stop it. That spread of air is delayed over the Hills because of the terrain. Westerly winds can also contribute to an inversion by virtue of how the air moves and reacts. Air that sinks down the Hills can warm as it gets near the surface.

The cold temperatures have wrecked havoc on some homes in and around Custer. Tori Mayer of Mayer Plumbing said there have been several instances of burst pipes due to the cold temperatures along with the warmer days that cause a freeze-thaw-freeze effect.

The nice fall followed by the sudden winter took some people by surprise, Mayer said, which led to some people not having their homes winterized in time for the bitter temperatures.

“That is so important here,” Mayer said of winterizing. “Don’t wait until January to do it. The damage has already been done.”

Sherburn said the cold temperatures mean much of the snow had been “drier” snow, as the moisture in the snow correlates with the temperature. The warmer the temperature when it snows, the more liquid is in the snow. Colder temperatures generally have a 20- or 30-to-1 ratio, meaning for every 20 or 30 inches of snow, there is one inch of precipitation.

Sherburn said the snow that fell Feb. 9-11 had better  precipitation, more like a 10-1 ratio. Those types of snows are helpful, he said, as the area continues to battle a drought.

The snow has kept snowplows busy, with city public works director Bob Morrison saying he doesn’t keep track of how much the city plows, but it does amount to more overtime for his crew.

When there is significant snow, the crew puts the snow into windrows—during the day, if they must—and then haul it away at night, when there is less traffic, which is typically at least an eight-hour job.

“It’s just one of those things you put up with. You just do it until it’s done,” he said. “We try to figure out what the safest way to move it is.”

Morrison said, since there has basically been snow on the ground since October, this winter has been horrible for ice. The melt-freeze-melt creates abundant ice the city crew has spent a great deal of time battling. It means a great deal more sand being used, as well.

County highway superintendent Gary Woodford agreed with Morrison’s ice assessment. Many people travel the roads early in the morning and pack the snow, which turns into ice, along with the aforementioned freezing and melting pattern.

“This year has been bad for that,” Woodford said. “We have a lot of icy roads to deal with.”

The storm the weekend of Feb. 9 saw county plows out Friday and Saturday, only to be called back out the first of the next week because of the wind drifting in roads. In the Buffalo Gap area of the county, people were calling the department saying they couldn’t get in and out of their homes due to the drifting.

“Out in the country, it’s pretty bad,” Woodford said. In the southern part of the county, some areas got 15 inches of snow from the Feb. 9 storm, Woodford said.

Road conditions have meant lots of plowing, lots of sanding and lots of overtime, as all the storms seemingly take place over the weekend, when the county highway staff is off work.

“We work Monday through Thursday, then it snows on Thursday night,” Woodford said. “It seems like it always snows on the weekends.”

The weather hasn’t caused any problems as far as electricity is concerned, with Mike Chase, Black Hills Electric Cooperative manager of marketing and member services, saying the co-op has not experienced any weather-related outages. Naturally, colder temperatures mean higher heating bills, however.

Unfortunately for those ready for spring, it won’t arrive any time soon. Sherburn said the area will continue to see below normal temperatures and above-average precipitation through the rest of February and into March.

If that happens, those tasked with dealing with it will continue to do so—even if they’re a little tired of it.

“You always think you need the moisture,” Morrison said. “It gets a little monotonous. Especially when it seems like it’s snowing every weekend.”