Northern Great Plains Blizzards

By Jenna Peneueta-Snyder

North Dakota is the reported blizzard capital of the United States. With global temperatures on the rise, what does this mean for the future of potential blizzards in the Northern Great Plains?

Dr. Aaron Kennedy, CRCS co-lead and Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at UND, presented, “Identifying Northern Great Plains Blizzards in the Past, Present, and Future,” at the 99th American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ on January 9, 2019. He addressed how warming climate will impact blizzard conditions in the Northern Great Plains.

Unlike the storms out east, our storms don’t get hashtags, the weather channel doesn’t acknowledge them, but they’re just as important for us,” Kennedy began in his presentation. “There’s a good reason why we get a lot of blizzards, there’s a combination of factors that provide the perfect environment to get blowing snow.”

During his presentation, Kennedy contributes blizzards to the combination of four main factors: topography, land cover, meteorological forcing, and snowpack conditions.

When these factors combine, we end up with not just your stereotypical blizzard, with high snowfall rates and strong winds, but we also end up with these ground blizzards,” Kennedy said during his presentation. “These are situations where the snow has fallen anywhere to several days in advance of the strong winds behind an arctic front and this picks up the snow and this makes our life hectic.”

In addition to these factors, there are various pressure systems that contribute to blizzards in the Northern Great Plains. The first and “most notable” according to Kennedy is the Colorado Lows, a low pressure system with a high level of moisture, strong winds, and reduced visibility. Similar to the Colorado Low is the Alberta Clipper, which has weaker snowfall but strong winds. There also exist hybrid systems and arctic fronts which are responsible for ground blizzards.

Pictured top left: Colorado Low pressure system, top right: Alberta Clipper pressure system, bottom left: hybrid pressure system, bottom right: arctic front pressure system. Photo from Kennedy’s presentation, “Identifying Northern Great Plains Blizzards in the Past, Present, and Future.” Jan 9, 2019.

In order to conduct this research, Kennedy and his graduate students utilize Self-Organizing Maps (SOMs), coupled with North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR) composites, and Community Earth System Model (CESM) to simulate the Earth’s climate system.

From this analysis, the first step was to create a grid of classification using the data gathered by SOMs. Kennedy and his team looked at various patterns and focused on those that presented blizzard conditions. In order to test for blizzard conditions, they used thresholds for wind speed and temperature.

54 class-climatological SOMs created by Kennedy to identify blizzard conditions. The first column shows the SOMS where blizzard conditions are most prevalent. Photo from Kennedy’s presentation, “Identifying Northern Great Plains Blizzards in the Past, Present, and Future.” Jan 9, 2019.

The results showed a reduction of at least one blizzard every two years through the 21st century. Kennedy notes these are preliminary results, so they are a conservative estimate of what might be expected for blizzard conditions in the future. One thing is for certain, a warmer climate will reduce the amount of blowing snow.

For the recorded version of Dr. Kennedy’s presentation, please visit

Wetland Loss can Impact Long-term Flood Risks

By: Ashley Rone

Wetlands are a crucial part of the natural environment that provide a habitat to animals and plants, improve water quality, and reduce flood potential. The loss of wetlands changes stream and river chemistry and can alter the way ecosystems function. The decrease in water leads to an increase in pollutants that are not filtered out and the water quality decreases. This reduced surface area of water leaves the land prone to flooding under heavy precipitation and snow build-up.
Research done on the loss of wetlands in North Dakota can provide valuable information about flooding potential and how to restore wetlands. One particular researcher at the University of North Dakota, Dr. Xiaodong Zhang, has focused on the Devils Lake water basin.

“North Dakota is part of pothole area in the U.S., and used to be covered with stretches of wetland,” said Dr. Zhang. “Draining wetland has certainly increased flooding potential in the region.”

He and his team of fellow scientists used the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) hydrological model to identify water movement in the Devils Lake watershed area. Combined with data from the historical and Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP-5) they were able to estimate flood risks.
“Currently, 11% of the Devils Lake basin is covered by wetland. A 5% increase to 16% of wetland coverage would reduce the Devils Lake water level by approximately 0.5 m,” Zhang explained. “This is mainly because the presence of wetland reduces the peak stream flow.”

A figure taken from the research article published by Sergey Gulbin, Andrei P.Kirilenko, Gehendra Kharel, and Xiaodong Zhang called Wetland loss impact on long term flood risks in a closed watershed. Image A shows a map of the Devils Lake Basin and the Red River North basin boundaries. Image B shows the water level change of Devils Lake.

@page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } p { margin-bottom: 0.1in; direction: ltr; line-height: 115%; text-align: left; orphans: 2; widows: 2; background: transparent }
A figure taken from the research article published by Sergey Gulbin, Andrei P.Kirilenko, Gehendra Kharel, and Xiaodong Zhang called
Wetland loss impact on long term flood risks in a closed watershed.
Image A shows a map of the Devils Lake Basin and the Red River North basin boundaries. Image B shows the water level change of Devils Lake.

Based on these predicted flood risks, the researchers examined potential solutions that would benefit the Devils Lake area in the future. “Operating the two outlets that have been built is more effective in controlling rising water of Devils Lake than restoring wetland,” said Zhang. “On the other hand, diverting water from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River would increase the flooding potential of the river and degrade its water quality. So, there is no perfect solution.”
This information is useful for the state of North Dakota in terms of risk management and building river diversions that help prevent flooding. The next step in flood risk research is to approach state agencies with hopes that they will take the research findings into account in their future decision making.

Hopped up on Science

By Jenna Peneueta-Snyder

Hopped up on Science is a monthly STEM café organized by Dr. Aaron Kennedy, CRCS co-lead and Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at UND. Hosted by Half Brothers Brewing Company in downtown Grand Forks, the cafés meet during the academic year and feature presenters from various disciplines. This gives the community a chance to learn about a variety of topics and catch-up on the latest research being conducted in the region.

Kennedy decided to set up the STEM café due in part to the overall lack of science and educational forums in town.

“Science cafés have been around forever and there used to be some in town but overtime they went away,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s good for the public and researchers to interact and demonstrate the good that STEM provides.”

For this month’s café, the topic was “Droning on about drones: The science and policy of unmanned aircraft” presented by UND’s own Joe Vacek, lawyer and Professor of Aviation. Vacek’s research is heavily influenced and inspired by aerospace law and policy.

Drones are becoming increasingly common for both professional as well as recreational uses. High resolution image mapping, fire suppression, police tracking, and tourism were just a few of the examples Vacek laid out in his presentation.

While drones have arguably made life much more convenient, they have also been utilized for mal intent such as disrupting flights and delivering contraband.

For the past two years, Vacek’s research has focused on policy to identify these negative utilizations and stop them. He also addresses issues of privacy and a question he gets asked quite a bit: Can I shoot a drone down?

“If it’s too close–and you’ll know when it’s too close– if you’re standing in your garden and can swat at it with your garden hose, then you can shoot it down,” said Vacek. “But you might still face some consequences.”

Currently, Vacek has a patent pending on an Autonomous UAS Detection and Mitigation program which identifies foreign drones over a particular air space. This system then gathers data on the drone such as its flight path and elevation and analyzes the drone’s behavior. If the drone is intruding or acting suspicious, corrective action can then be taken.

Next month on March 20th, the STEM café will feature Dr. Nuri Oncel, from UND’s department of Physics. His topic is Nanoscience/Nanotechnology.

The Hopped up on Science STEM café meets once a month during the fall and spring semesters. For more information, and a complete list of presentations, visit their Facebook page,​ .

Impacts of Sub-daily Temperature Variations around the Freezing Temperature on A Hydrological Model using Macro-scale Snowmelt Simulations

By Ashley Rone

Water supply research predictions are essential for agriculture, recreational, and environmental tasks in North Dakota. North Dakota’s unique climate is important for water security research conducted on snowmelt fluctuations in freezing temperatures. The information collected from macro-hydrological models helps identify dependable water supplies in the state and other similar geographical regions.

North Dakota State University, Mohsen Tahmasebi Nasab in his office. Photo taken from the North Dakota Water Resources Research Institute website.

North Dakota State University, Mohsen Tahmasebi Nasab in his office. Photo taken from the North Dakota Water Resources Research Institute website.

Mohsen Tahmasebi Nasab, a doctoral student and graduate research assistant at North Dakota State University, is studying topographic maps and macro-scale hydrologic models based on the cold North Dakota climate.

“Hydrologic models are simplifications of the real-world water cycle systems and are being increasingly used to simulate different water-related processes or hydrologic processes such as snowmelt, surface runoff, and infiltration,” said Tahmasebi Nasab. “Historically, water security or a reliable supply of water for agriculture, communities, and ecosystems has been one of the top priorities of humans.”

These hydrologic models are particularly important for predicting future changes of water resources. These predictions are specifically important for flooding events that often occur in the Red River Valley that can affect agriculture production.

“Hydrologic simulations and predictions can provide valuable information on different hydrologic processes for decision-makers, farmers, and researchers,” Tahmasebi Nasab said. “For example, hydrologic modeling results can tell us how much surface runoff a rainfall event can generate, how much snow is melted on a given day, or how much water is stored in the soil profile.”

The hydrologic model that Tahmasebi Nasab uses inputs data from different sources that include precipitation, temperature, topographic, and land use. These data sets are all necessary for projecting certain geographic water resources, but one specifically important figure is the topographic map.

A topographic map of North Dakota from the year 1924. Image published and provided by the online U.S. Geological Survey database.

“North Dakota has unique hydro-topographical characteristics such as cold and long winters and a depression-dominated topography,” Tahmasebi Nasab explained. “These unique characteristics give rise to special conditions such as frozen soil and directly affect the modeling of different hydrologic processes.”

The information collected contains data on topics such as temperature and precipitation variations. These variables are important for addressing long-term regional water resource issues.

“Climate and hydrologic models can be linked to predict the future of water resources under different scenarios,” said Tahmasebi Nasab. “In one of our recent studies, we evaluated the impacts of temperature variations on macro-scale snowmelt simulations in the Missouri River Basin. We found that even sub-daily temperature fluctuations around the freezing temperature can significantly affect the generation of snowmelt.”

These studies have proven to be beneficial for a multitude of reasons. Now, the next step is to further develop the hydrological model and test the ability of the model in other regions with river basins.

The Importance of Shelterbelt Density

By Jenna Peneueta-Snyder

Shelterbelts are vital to retaining soil nutrients and reducing wind caused erosion. For communities dependent upon agriculture, a decline in shelterbelt density can mean a decline in healthy soil and crops.

During the 1930’s much of the land in the Great Plains had been cleared and converted for agricultural purposes. The excessive clearing, however, left the fields vulnerable to erosion. This, coupled with extreme drought conditions, plunged the country into the worst economic recession it had ever seen, otherwise known as the Great Depression.

Detection of Shelterbelt Density Change Using Historic APFO and NAIP Aerial Imagery was recently published in the MDPI journal Remote Sensing. The project set out to gauge how much land area in Grand Forks County is dedicated to shelterbelts and if there has been a decline in recent years.

The primary researcher for this project was Morgen Burke, former master’s degree student in the Department of Geography & GISc and current Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth System Science and Policy at the University of North Dakota.

Burke et al. 2019’s journal paper utilized aerial images from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) and other U.S. Government aerial photography programs dating back to 1962. Geographic object-based image analysis (GEOBIA) was used to adequately identify various vegetation types in the NAIP imagery and determine shelterbelt density.

Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Largest Concentration of Tree Shelterbelts in the World
Photo by Morgen Burke

Burke’s interest in shelterbelts in the Grand Forks region was piqued when he first moved to town in 2014. “When you’re driving into town from the west, there’s a big sign on the side of the road that says Grand Forks County, shelterbelt capital of the world.”

“At the same time I was noticing that in the Grand Forks Herald or NDSU’s Ag Week, they were saying these trees are being removed, and there was really nothing to back it up,” Burke said. “It was just kind of a question of how many trees are there and how have they actually changed.”

The results showed a doubling of shelterbelt densities from 1962 to 2014, as well as a relatively small decline between 2014 and 2016.

“The Prairie States Forestry Project had a goal to plant shelterbelts from Texas to the Canadian border. When we looked at the 1960 imagery, we expected most of the trees we were seeing then to have come out of that planting,” said Burke. “From the 1960’s on it was really the Soil Conservation Service pushing to get more and more trees planted.”

Morgen Burke, pictured here in his office in Clifford Hall, University of North Dakota
Photo by Jenna Peneueta-Snyder

Burke attributes the subtle decline from 2014 to 2016 to technological advancements in crop tillage and the increasing size of machinery.

Farmers that practice conservation tillage, which leaves stubble from previous crops on the field, help secure the root system, preventing erosion. Some farmers may also be choosing to remove their shelterbelts due to the massive size of machinery and the inconvenience of navigating around fallen trees.

Additional researchers on this journal include Dr. Bradley Rundquist, Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Geography and Dr. Haochi Zheng, Professor of Environmental Economics in ESSP, both at UND.

“My role in this research was to help interpret how farmer’s decision-makings on land uses may have an impact on observed changes in shelterbelt density,” said Zheng. “Planting shelterbelts on private agricultural land is a typical conservation practice to mitigate soil erosion. However, not every individual landowner values the environmental benefits from this conservation practice.”

In 2015, the North Dakota Forest Service was awarded $1.8 million to help maintain the state’s shelterbelts. Burke, however, noted a lack of enforcement when it comes to government subsidies and shelterbelt maintenance.

“[Farmers] could plant the trees and then 5 years later, or an even shorter period, they could just decide to remove them,” said Burke. “There’s no penalty for that. Although, some of the shelterbelts have been put into the Conservation Reserve Program.”

The Conservation Reserve Program is administered by the Farm Service Agency and provides a financial incentive in exchange for protecting or removing environmentally sensitive lands from agricultural production.

Although more research will need to be conducted down the line to further determine the status of shelterbelt densities in the region, Burke’s research showcases the importance of planting and maintaining shelterbelts.

The Value of Partnerships

By Jenna Peneueta-Snyder, Ashley Rone

Interdisciplinary collaborations through the Center for Regional Climate Studies (CRCS) are key for the expansion of research at North Dakota universities and colleges. These collaborations have lead to some very successful projects and working relationships within the CRCS.

The research partnerships that have developed incorporate various disciplines such as agriculture, hydrology, economics, and atmospheric sciences.

“Most of the connections via CRCS has been with our colleagues at NDSU and other partner institutions across the state,” says Dr. Aaron Kennedy, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Dakota. “Probably the biggest impact has been learning what other work is being done, and the opportunity to brainstorm how our research may or may not connect.”

“My group’s strongest relationship is with the National Weather Service, and activities associated with CRCS have also helped build bonds with other climate/weather groups in the region including the state climate office, and the High Plains Regional Climate Center.” Kennedy added.

The benefits of individual departments coming together to work on common problems provides multiple perspectives on how to solve issues. Collaborations across disciplines have been vital to the many projects CRCS researchers are currently working on.

Dr. Jianglong Zhang (left) and Dr. Aaron Kennedy (right)

We sat down with Dr. Jianglong Zhang, Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Dakota, and graduate student Jon Starr on January 22nd, to discuss some of the partnerships that have formed under the CRCS.

At the time of our meeting, Starr’ journal paper got just accepted for publication which explores the combination of an agricultural simulation model and an economic model to better predict the potential impacts of market fluctuations and policy changes on agricultural activities.

In terms of where they see the CRCS going in the future, Zhang and Kennedy both had some big ideas to fill.

“More private company participation. I envision a future where companies can come to us with questions and we can task our students with working on real-world problems,” said Kennedy. “It would be nice to see this eventually form an internship program.”

“A main goal of mine is to improve agricultural practice not only in North Dakota, but in larger areas with the use of new technological models,” said Zhang. His focus has been primarily on regional issues but hopes to expand this vision to the larger scale.

And as far as future partnerships are concerned, Zhang said in the future he would like to work with genetics and phenology.

“One thing, agriculturally related, is looking at genetically modified crops,” said Zhang. “We’ve been looking at how agriculture is affected by the weather, and by the economy, but it’s also been affected by the increasing quality of seeds which is an area we wish to explore.”