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December thunderstorm resets the record books

Brainerd set a new precipitation record, breaking one that stood for 119 years. Northern Minnesota escaped the damaging winds as the powerful storm barreled through the southern part of the state, producing the first tornadoes in Minnesota in December.

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Kathy Besmehn scrapes the ice off her windshield in Brainerd Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The heavy rain and warm temperatures along with the snowfall coated surfaces in central Minnesota with a thick sheet of ice. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Lightning flashing and thunder rumbled above homes decorated with holiday lights with Christmas a little more than a week away provided a stark contrast as historic storms swept through the area Wednesday, Dec. 15, into Thursday.

Rain, which included a deluge, broke a Dec. 15 precipitation record that stood for 119 years. The National Weather Service in Duluth reported Brainerd recorded 0.97 inches of precipitation, canceling the 0.70 inches set in 1902. Duluth also set a new high temperature at 49 degrees, besting the 48 degrees set in 1877.

The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport recorded another 0.27 inches of precipitation Thursday, with most of that before 6 a.m.

Rain changed over to light snow after midnight as the temperature began a steady drop from 43 degrees to 32 before 3 a.m. The temperature continued to plunge overnight and throughout Thursday, dropping steadily from 28 degrees before 4 a.m. to 9 degrees with a subzero wind chill before 5 p.m.

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There were sporadic reports of downed trees across the area. But the icy road conditions and biting temperatures seemed to be the main issue in the storm's aftermath. Streets awash with running water just hours earlier became ice-covered with frozen tire tracks and ruts topped by a thin layer of light snow. Snow in north Brainerd measured about 2 inches Thursday morning.

In Brainerd, some with cars parked outside were forced to use warm water to get through frozen vehicle doors as dropping temperatures created a flash freeze turning rain to ice.

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Strong winds and blowing snow partially obscures visibility for motorists as they travel on Highway 371 near Hole-in-the-Day Bay in Nisswa Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

By Thursday night, the Minnesota Department of Transporation listed Highway 371 with ice on the roadway from south of Pequot Lakes to south of North Long Lake. Other highways in the area, including Highway 210, were reported to have light slush.

Side streets and county roads were icy for motorists Thursday as the light snow topped the ice layer. Highway 210 from Brainerd to Motley was listed as dry pavement Thursday night.

The Brainerd Public Library closed early Thursday because of road conditions and weather-related issues.

RELATED: Flash freeze may make for treacherous travel with strong, complex storm
Jonathan Wolfe, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Duluth, said they did not have reports of a lot of damage in the region from the storm. Wolfe said the thunderstorms in mid-December were unprecedented, melting away what snow was on the ground and then adding back a smaller amount by Thursday.

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Just a little bit colder, Wolfe said, and this precipitation could have been all snow, translating from an inch of rain to something closer to a foot and a half of snow.

The good news for those hoping for a white Christmas is the snow that is here isn’t likely to go anywhere with the temperatures forecast through December.

“It’s not going to melt,” Wolfe said.

The outlook is for cold and dry conditions with a 60% chance for a little more snow Friday night.

The sun should return Saturday and into next week, which should help in clearing remaining ice.

Stormy night

Wednesday started with dense fog and mild air. People were running errands and stocking up on groceries and leaving coats and other winter apparel behind with the unseasonal though not unprecedented warmth. Temperatures rose to 45 degrees for a high.

What was unusual was the complex storm’s arrival with thunder, lightning and heavy rain in mid-December. The storm system was, as the National Weather Service predicted, one for the record books with the first December tornadoes on record in Minnesota as two tornadoes were confirmed in the southeastern portion of the state.

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The lakes region escaped the high winds, which could have added to the mix with power outages and significant tree and property damage. While conditions were breezy with western winds of 20 mph or more, the top gust reached 44 mph at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport early Thursday morning before dawn.

Other areas weren’t so lucky.

The National Weather Service in the Twin Cities reported a low pressure system of historic strength led to a variety of high-end weather impacts from the central plains to the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Wednesday and Thursday.

“A serial derecho moving at 60-70 mph tracked from Kansas to Wisconsin, resulting in over 400 reports of damaging wind and several tornadoes. Most of the damage across our area occured from south-central Minnesota through west-central Wisconsin,” the weather service reported. Ahead of the storm, temperatures in the southern part of the state exceeded 60 degrees.

“The warm temperatures melted what was left of the snowpack from the December 10 winter storm, which led to widespread dense fog through much of the morning and afternoon,” the weather service reported. “After the thunderstorms, strong gradient winds and widespread wind gusts in excess of 50 mph developed for several hours late Wednesday night and into the overnight hours.”

The airport at Redwood Falls measured a gust of 78 mph at 11:30 p.m.

“Temperatures quickly fell below freezing across western and central Minnesota Wednesday night, causing rain to change over to a wintry mix of freezing drizzle and snow. Snowfall accumulations of 1-4 inches, along with the strong gusty winds, led to low visibility and travel hazards late Wednesday night into Thursday morning,” the weather service reported.

The Minnesota State Patrol reported statewide from 6 a.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday, troopers responded to 1,121 crashes with 27 of those with injuries — one serious injury and one fatality. Another 49 vehicles ran off the road or spun out, requiring transportation or towing assistance, including several jackknifed semitrailers.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.

Related Topics: MINNESOTA
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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