Atlas’ 1st Anniversary

by Amy on October 3, 2014


A year ago today, winter storm Atlas began with rain, then turned to rapidly piling snow overnight. I was not at home, but rather attending the annual Women in Ag conference for our area 30 miles away along with many other farm and ranch women. My family was home and rode out the storm mildly. Our place was not hit hard with the devastating storm the way we learned many others did.

Evidence remained fresh in our minds, thoughts, and prayers long after the storm as we saw media coverage on the after effects having to extract dead livestock from roads and nooks and crannies along western South Dakota’s landscape.

Months later, our son Myles had to choose a senior project. It had to be something that related to community service. Part of the project was doing a research paper. He chose to do a steak feed to benefit South Dakota ranchers through the Rancher Relief Fund. His research paper was on blizzards and their effect on ranchers. When I read his research paper I was amazed at what I learned about these types of storms. I feel it’s worth sharing and have decided to include it on my blog. If you are interested and have time, you’re welcome to read it.

By Myles Kirk

All weather has a great impact on the income of ranchers, but none more adverse than Midwestern winters and the blizzards they bring. Blizzards occur about three times in an average winter for South Dakota (Hoover, page 24). Residents of South Dakota are used to extreme weather, but the recent Atlas Storm caught livestock producers off-guard. It is important to help the local ranchers we have in South Dakota recover from the effects of this storm in any way we can to  shelter South Dakota’s number one industry- agriculture.

A blizzard has been defined by the National Weather Service as having “sustained winds or frequent gusts to thirty-five miles per hour or greater and considerable falling and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to a quarter mile or less”(NWS, np).The Atlas storm greatly exceeded all of those requirements in addition to being early in the season, creating devastating losses for ranchers across western South Dakota. The factors that cause our weather have a lot to do with how this storm became so overwhelming.


The weather we experience on Earth is in many ways caused by the heating power of the Sun. The Sun heats up the Earth’s atmosphere in different amounts because of the tilt of the Earth. This tilt of the Earth changes over a 41,000 year cycle, but for now it is at a constant 23.45 degrees offset from straight up and down (Allaby, page 1). This means that there are different temperatures of air across the entire globe and that there are changing seasons for middle and higher latitudes. This causes the wind, precipitation, and hot or cold snaps that happen right here in South Dakota. Another factor that plays a role in local weather is the proximity to water. The Sun can heat up air fairly easily, but heating water takes more energy due to the heat capacity of water.This means that oceans and or large lakes have a moderating effect on local weather. The farther away from an ocean or large body of water, the drier the atmosphere is and the more extreme the temperatures range. Closer to a body of water, the atmosphere is wetter and has more moderate temperatures. The same principle that causes different temperatures in air also effects the oceans and causes global currents. In global weather, another factorthat plays a role is the Coriolis Effect. The Earth spins on an imaginary axis every day, causing parts of the Earth to face the darkness of space and the opposite parts of the Earth to be exposed to the warming rays of the Sun. Simply put, the Earth is spinning and there isn’t anything we can do to stop it. This also means that any object not firmly attached to the surface of the earth (air, for example) will tend to follow the curve that results from the turning of the Earth. The Coriolis Effect causes air to move in reoccurring patterns across the globe, and these moving air masses are prevailing winds (Allaby, page 74).For South Dakota, the wind in the summer is primarily from the South. In the fall,the wind patterns shift to the East slowly until winter, when the wind comes from the Northeast (Hoover, page 24-25). The primary winds for the middle latitudes in both hemispheres are from west to east (Allaby, page 12).

The weather in North America is greatly affected by the polar jet stream. This weather phenomenon was discovered by World War II pilots, when high-altitude flying was just being attempted. They discovered that they could either reduce or increase their air speed very dramatically depending on which direction they were flying. The jet stream happens in middle latitudes where cold polar and warm tropical air meet. The area where these two air masses meet is called the polar front, and it occurs usually about 40,000 feet in altitude (Allaby, page 150). The extreme difference in these air masses causes the high winds that can help or hurt pilots even today. During late winter, the jet stream breaks down in index cycles, which are barometric pressure differences between two different latitudes, making it difficult to predict the flow of the jet stream. When the jet stream breaks down over these cycles, it lets cold polar air from Canada into the lower United States. This causes the cold snaps South Dakotans occasionally feel. Every winter there are usually three types of air affecting North America that set up the wintry conditions Midwesterners are accustomed to. There is arctic air hovering over the most of Canada, moist air moving west from the Atlantic, and air moving east from the Pacific. When the air over the Pacific Ocean moves westward it collides with the polar air causing many winter storms, squalls, and occasionally blizzards (Allaby, page 72).

All the global and regional effects of weather form the local weather that every community experiences. The climate of most of western South Dakota can be described as a dry, continental climate. Most of western South Dakota is far from water sources, causing the typical continental conditions for such a climate: extreme hot/cold and very dry at times. Moisture in South Dakota happens only in a small area and is more difficult to predict. The Black Hills of South Dakota have an unclassified climate because of the adverse weather conditions caused by elevation changes and topography. This is shown in the fact that for every 1000 feet rise in elevation there is usually a three and a half degree drop in temperature (Hoover, page 26).

The total of all local, national, and global conditions create what we know as a climate, or the average weather of an area. A few special conditions must happen in order for a storm like Atlas to happen. Moisture in clouds from evaporated water sources falls to the Earth when it becomes too heavy. The air temperature of the cloud, the temperature of the air below the cloud, and the elevation of the cloud determine what type of precipitation it will be. When the cloud temperature is around 23 to 32 degrees,the bigger flakes are produced (Allaby, page 91). When the air temperature is extremely cold, there will not be very much snow. This is because cold air holds less moisture than warm air, and thus there is nothing to turn into snow. This has been shown by the extremely cold winters the Canadian prairie experiences: the winters here are bitterly cold, but many days go by without a cloud in the sky (Allaby, page 71).Blizzards usually happen when there is an unusually warm spell during the winter, which means the end or beginning of winter. Many blizzards occur during the month of March across Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota. The relatively warm air that brings snow, combined with wind, are the main components of blizzards.

One must understand that snow can be altered once it reaches the ground. The sun may warm snow up causing a tiny layer of water to be on top of the snow which may freeze, causing a glazed snow. Wind also alters snow and can create features such as snowdrifts. Snowdrifts are another hazard that the high winds of a blizzard bring to an area. When there is a strong wind, the air has the ability to carry objects, snow being one of these. The more energy the wind has, the more it can carry. The opposite effect happens when it loses energy: it drops the snow. When air molecules collide with an object, they lose energy. This is seen with snowdrifts forming around the bases of objects left outside.

The Atlas Storm was during the fall of 2013, when relatively warm air was present. The air got cold enough to make freezing precipitation, and the South Dakota wind took care of the rest. This all summed up to be a disaster to cattle ranchers in South Dakota.

South Dakota has had a history of extreme winter weather, and it is not about to change. Three years before South Dakota became a state, in the winter of 1886, there was another devastating storm that dramatically reduced the size of the free range herd. There was a drought before that winter causing a shortage of feed in southern states, which caused cattle barons to send their herds north. Then the winter came and affected areas from Canada to Texas, killing 300 people in its wake. The Hash Knife Ranch near Belle Fourche, South Dakota had a pre-storm head count of about 80,000 cattle. The storm knocked their numbers to 9,000 head. The E6 Ranch accounted for 18,000 head before and 1,900 after the storm. Areas around the Cheyenne River were less effected by the storm due to cedar groves for shelter (Hunhoff, pages 59-64). The 1888 American winter was one of the worst recorded. On January 11-13, there was blowing snow and bitter cold, with a break for some time and then the storm resumed.

In the unclassified climate of the Black Hills, there have also been very surprising weather phenomenon. In January of 1943 in Spearfish, the temperature was recorded at a chilly four degrees below zero. Two minutes later, the temperature was at 45 degrees above. Spearfish still holds the record for the largest two minute temperature change in the world. This special even was caused by a Chinook, or a warm wind. The air was forced to sink from encounter with geographical features and warmed as it fell toward the Earth due to compression. For every mile the air sinks, it warms up about thirty degrees (Schrage, page 1).

During the Blizzard of 1949 in January, airplanes had to be used for food and medical supplies and for livestock hay. One person died in South Dakota, twelve in Wyoming, seven in Colorado, and twenty in Nebraska. The highest single gust during that storm was 73 miles per hour. January of 1949 was one of the snowiest and coldest months on recordfor many weather stations (Blizzard, page 1).

The year 1968 brought freezing rain followed by snow all across eastern South Dakota and into Minnesota. One man was killed in a train wreck after his car stalled on the tracks due to snow in Hancock, Minnesota (ABR, page 1). The winter of 1976-77 caused 19 states east of the Rocky Mountains to record some of their lowest temperatures. The winter of 1983 resulted in the deaths of fifty-six people on November 28 across Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa (UNR, page 1). The Holy Week Blizzard of 2000 snapped trees and power poles. Most of the 18 to 33 inches of snow fell within twelve hours, causing two to four inches of liquid precipitation. This Blizzard cost about three million dollars in damages (UNR, page 1).

Technology has played a major role in helping people across the Midwest prepare before storms hit and help combat them once they hit. The best way to prepare for a blizzard is to know when it is coming and modern meteorology helps with this. Numerical weather prediction is one way that scientists are able to predict some storms. This method uses the laws of physics to predict what the weather systems will do. The idea comes from the fact that air follows certain principles because of its properties as a fluid. The beginnings of this concept were first thought of by the English mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson in 1922. Richardson’s methods were on the right track, but technology at the time didn’t have the calculating power that was needed. He had a staff of 26,000 accountants in total but it still wasn’t enough (Lyons, page 320).  His method predicted larger pressure changes than had ever been recorded and weren’t correct. His experiment was virtually forgotten. Modern technology has the ability to use this method effectively now because of faster computations.

One of the main constraints to weather forecasting is that weather systems are huge- most can cover large portions of continents. Putting data together for weather forecasting before 1869 could only go as fast as a horse could run from an observation station to a computing center. In 1869 the telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse and compiling data for weather forecasting was born. At the Great Exhibition in London during 1851, the first weather map was drawn up from several different observations at the same time. The first three-day forecasts were conducted in 1871 in Cincinnati, Ohio. From these humble beginnings, world-wide weather stations and predictions began (Allaby, page 181-182).

Other tools have been developed to help meteorologists form their forecasts. Starting in 1960, scientists started launching balloons into the atmosphere with data-measuring devices on them.  The balloons evolved into modern satellites that circle the globe and give an almost constant observation of the Earth (Allaby, page 182).Satellites help save over $5 billion per year because of the weather information they present to industries nationwide (Lyons, page 330). Modern satellites have cameras and infrared measurement devices on them to help scientists better analyze the data from weather stations, balloons, and ocean buoys. The information from all these data points is fed into a supercomputer which analyzes it and turns it into a map of what the weather is doing. Among the armory of tools at a meteorologist’s disposal are the experiences of the meteorologists themselves. A veteran meteorologist may be able to predict what will happen when certain conditions come around. The first clue that they look for is differences in air pressure.Even thoughall of these resources are available for weather forecasting, the most accurate predictions can only be made a week ahead of the present. Weather prediction may remain this way forever because of the chaotic forces created by the many topographical, atmospheric, and oceanographic features of the Earth. The shorter the forecast period, the more accurate it will be (Allaby, page 183).

From all these advances in technology, local weather stations are able to tell people around them what weather is coming their way. These come in the form of warnings from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The NOAA has the ability to broadcast these warnings over several types of media: television, internet, and radio. The warnings come in different severities starting with a Winter Weather Advisory to the most extreme being a Blizzard Warning. A Winter Weather Advisory is weather bad enough to cause some problems with transportation, etc. A Frost-Freeze Warning may occur in an area that normally doesn’t receive below freezing temperatures, or these temperatures are out of season for the area. A Winter-Weather Watch happens when blizzard type weather is two or less days away from an area. A Blizzard warning is what is broadcasted when the combination of wind-blown and falling snow is expected to produce snowdrifts, extreme temperature drops, and dramatically reduced visibility.

Out on the range of South Dakota ranchers also have a few tools to help fight blizzards. One of these tools is a snow fence, which causes wind to lose its velocity and drop snow before a roadway rather than on it. With snow fences, drifts are more likely to form to the side of the road (Lyons, page 320). Ranchers also can use powerful tractor-driven plows and snow-blowers. Windbreaks and shelterbelts are also used in the wake of a storm to keep livestock safe. Possibly the greatest defense against weather is the land itself- winter pastures are greatly protected from the chilling effects of the wind by hills and valleys.

The Atlas Storm was one of the worst Fall Blizzards in South Dakota’s recorded history. The previous October snowfall record was ten inches and happened a hundred years ago. The Atlas Storm dropped three feet of snow in some parts of the Black Hills. One location in Northwestern Lawrence County recorded 58 inches of snow. This equates to roughly 6.78 inches of liquid precipitation and 20 percent of the annual precipitation- all in three days. Lead, South Dakota holds the record amount of snowfall for this storm at 55 inches. Rapid City recorded their second heaviest snow storm during Atlas with 23.1 inches officially recorded. The highest peak wind gust was at Ellsworth, South Dakota. Here a gust of 71 miles per hour was recorded (Winter Storm Central, np). Interstate 90 was closed from Murdo, South Dakota to the Wyoming border and winds were sustained at 44 miles per hour (Winter Storm Central, np). The storm certainly had all the attributes to be a killer to livestock.

The average cow can sell for $2000 at today’s market price and the average calf about $1000 (Zhorov). The executive director of South Dakota Stock Grower’s Association, Silvia Christen, estimated that 5% of the cattle west of the Missouri River were lost in Atlas (Amundson, page 1B). About a third of South Dakota’s cattle herd (3.7 million head) live in western South Dakota (Amundson, page 1B). Dustin Oedekoven, the state veterinarian, has estimated the total losses: 13977 cattle, 1257 sheep, 287 horses, and 40 bison, as of a month from when the storm occurred. Ranchers across South Dakota concluded that many of these died from exhaustion from drifting with the storm. Others suffocated each other even in sheltered corrals trying to escape the storm (Amundson, page 1B). Others were killed because of being trampled into low lying areas and being stuck in the mud. A few days before the storm the temperatures were nice: in the 70s and 80s, and many cows hadn’t grown their full winter coats yet. This caught livestock owners off guard and many cows were still on their unsheltered summer pastures. Cows in the shelter of the Black Hills had some calf abortions because of being forced to eat pine needles because of the heavy snowfall (Amundson, page 1B- 2B). Another concern for ranchers is the carcass cleanup process; all the snow accumulated has made significant amounts of mud. Some of the cattle will be hard to access with the proper equipment. These losses will be felt for generations to come and some operations may never recover from this one storm.

The losses from the Atlas Storm on October 3rd through the 4th of 2013 are significant; both in the number of cattle and the losses of income. There also was a great psychological loss: the ranchers were the caretakers of those animals and were unable to keep them alive through this terrible force of nature. The disastrous conditions seen on those two days were part of a long history of adverse weather across the Midwest, and it isn’t about to go away. There is help out there for these ranchers, but the ultimate factor to getting themback on their feet is their own determination and resolve. Ranchers who have lived in the Dakotas have had to deal with these same problems, and it is the hope for a better year that keeps these folks going. This storm won’t break this tradition- it will only strengthen these Midwesterners spirits. All weather has a great impact on the income of ranchers, but none more than adverse winters and the blizzards they bring.


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