If you’re looking for the month that brings the most dramatic extremes in Nebraska weather, the clear choice is March. During March in Nebraska, observes Kenneth F. Dewey, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “it is possible to experience all four seasons of weather.”
March in Nebraska, he writes, “has seen well-below-zero temperatures with paralyzing blizzards as well as early-summer heat with highs in the 90s.” Weather records for March 11, for example, show that the temperature range over the decades has spanned 103 degrees. March 11 has a record high of 84 degrees and a record low of minus 19.
Dewey makes those observations in an informative new book, “Great Plains Weather,” to be published this spring by the University of Nebraska Press. The book, which includes 13 maps and 19 charts and graphs, is the latest in a series of books on the Great Plains by NU’s Center for the Study of the Great Plains. Previous books have looked at the region’s politics, literature, Native Americans, geology and bison.
Dewey’s book contains information relevant in the wake of Nebraska’s current emergency from widespread flooding and blizzard damage. The “bomb cyclone” that has brought such devastation to Nebraska was the most extreme version of the Great Plains cold-weather phenomenon involving the collision of a mass of cold polar air with warm tropical air from the south. “When a low-pressure cell encounters the energy difference between these two unlike air masses,” Dewey writes, “it rapidly grows in strength, becoming a ‘deepening low.’ ”
A blizzard, Dewey writes, is defined not by a particular amount of snow but by “high winds and reduced visibility from blowing snow along with bitter-cold temperatures.” That is, of course, what western Nebraska just experienced. Temperatures in eastern Nebraska, meanwhile, were mild enough that the moisture, swept by fierce winds, fell as rain.
Dewey understandably devotes much attention to Great Plains tornadoes. The nation experienced 58,000 of the wind storms between 1950 and 2016, with 6,081 deaths. Nebraska had 2,821 tornadoes during that period. The southeastern United States, in contrast to the Plains, generally experiences tornadoes throughout the year and has more tornadoes at night. Dewey, in 200 pages, covers a wide variety of additional weather-related tangents. A small sampling:
» To illustrate the “Great Plains temperature roller-coaster,” he includes charts showing some of the region’s most dramatic temperature changes in short periods of time. From Jan. 31 to Feb. 1, 1989, temperatures in Valentine, Neb., plunged from 70 degrees down to minus 15.
» Hail can fall at more than 100 mph.
» In addition to finding shelter, it’s best to close all doors and windows to a house in preparing for a tornado. It’s a myth that leaving them open will stabilize air pressure and be safer.
» North Dakota has the Great Plains’ biggest temperature range, at 181 degrees (record high of 121 degrees, record low of minus 60). The temperature range for Key West, Florida: 56 degrees.
With this new book, NU’s Center for the Study of the Great Plains and the University of Nebraska Press make another worthy contribution to the understanding of our region.