Major winter storms: Just a part of life here

It’s probably mean, but in South Dakota we snicker when we see the strife and turmoil that a blizzard causes in other parts of the country.

Blizzards do their share of damage here, too, and we have a healthy respect for the weather. But we’re accustomed to below-zero temperatures, snowfall events of 1 or 2 feet, bone-chilling winds of 30 to 40 mph and ice-covered roads. All of those things happen to us every winter. It’s part of living on the High Plains, and we like to think it’s part of what makes us a little hardier than people in some other states.

It always seems like other states get covered obsessively by the national media when a winter storm hits. Utter chaos ensues in places like the Northeast and the South when a big winter storm blows in. Cars go zooming off the roads, roofs collapse and whole economies are interrupted. National TV news shows do whole segments on these kinds of storms, and the reporters and anchors openly marvel at the enormity of the situation.

When a big storm hits South Dakota, it’s usually not mentioned by the national media, or it’s mentioned as the last, brief item by an anchor without the aid of video. Something like, "and the Dakotas were hit with 12 inches of snow and bone-chilling cold yesterday, as many schools started late and travel was interrupted. Back to you, Jim."

I’m not sure if the national media’s neglect of our severe weather is because it’s so routine out here and therefore not very newsworthy, or because of our low population, or because the national media don’t really care about us.

Whatever the case, if you’re around a TV in winter in South Dakota and the national media start talking about a massive winter storm in some other state where severe winter weather is somewhat unusual, you can bet you’ll hear native South Dakotans laughing and making condescending remarks.

We sort of wear our ability to suffer through our winters like a badge of honor. On days when schools in other states would call off classes without a second thought, superintendents in South Dakota get criticized for even starting an hour or two late.

Yesterday morning, for example, it was 11 degrees below zero where I live at about 7 a.m. When some people I know heard that local schools had called off classes, their reaction was to ask why. I said it’s not good to have little kids out in such cold weather, because even just a few minutes of exposure can be dangerous. Also, I asked rhetorically, what if a bus broke down in that kind of weather?

The response I got was a shrug, as if to say "I guess, but it’s not that bad outside."

Indeed, the wind was only blowing at 9 mph, and a winter day with no wind in South Dakota, even if the temperature is below zero, feels almost like spring.

Just how bad does it get here? Below are some examples from state history.

  • Coldest temperature in state history: -58 at McIntosh, Feb. 17, 1936.
  • Coldest average statewide temperature for a month: -3.6 in February 1936.
  • Coldest winter: 8.6-degree statewide average temperature, 1935-36.
  • Greatest seasonal snowfall: 364.7 inches in 1993-94 in Lead (Lead is at a high elevation in the Black Hills; the state record for a season’s snowfall out on the plains and prairies is 109.2 inches in 1968-69 at Clear Lake).
  • Greatest 24-hour snowfall: 52 inches, March 14, 1973, at Lead.
  • Greatest monthly snowfall: 94 inches in March 1950 at Dumont in the Black Hills, 50 inches in February 1962 in Canton.

Of course, our summers can be the mirror opposite, with temperatures well above 100 degrees and vicious wind storms and tornadoes. For all the extremes, though, we get our share of beautiful days. In Sioux Falls, for example, the average high and low temperatures are 71 and 45 in May, 81 and 54 in June, 86 and 60 in July, 83 and 58 in August and 74 and 48 in September.

One of the most common sayings in our state goes like this: "If you don’t like the weather in South Dakota, stick around a few minutes." It’s an exaggeration that reflects the wide variety of weather we experience here, and the quickness with which the weather can change (I mentioned it was -11 yesterday morning where I live; today it’s supposed to climb near 30 degrees).

Some may say, "Why would you want to live in a place like that?" We not only take pride in the hardiness we exhibit in dealing with extreme weather, but we also like the variety. And with so few others willing to go through our weather extremes, the population density here is light, and that makes the nice days all the more enjoyable.

Categories: Commentary, General News
Tags: Snow, Weather, Winter

About Author

Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper was born and raised in South Dakota and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from South Dakota State University in 2001. After college, he worked at a newspaper in Minnesota and then returned to South Dakota in 2003 to join the staff of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, where he is currently the publisher. Seth has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2007 Outstanding Young Journalist award in the daily newspapers category of the South Dakota Newspaper Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Seth's day-job and freelance work have granted him opportunities to meet hundreds of South Dakotans and travel across much of the state. He also spends a lot of his free time exploring South Dakota's state and national parks, hiking trails and kayak-friendly rivers.


  1. Shelly
    Shelly 21 June, 2011, 18:13

    Great Post! This is so true. It made me laugh because this is exactly how it is with us South Dakotans. Something to be proud of, I guess.

    Reply this comment

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