Ken Dewey: Extreme Weather of the Great Plains
Blizzards! Wind! Tornadoes! UNL Professor Emeritus Ken Dewey talks about why the Great Plains has such extreme weather and shares some events that best illustrate this weather.
Dewey is the author of "Great Plains Weather," part of the "Discover the Great Plains" series from the Center for Great Plains Studies and University of Nebraska Press.
"Great Plains Anywhere" is a series of Great Plains talks and interviews in video and podcast form that you can listen to anywhere. It's part of the Paul A. Olson lecture series at the Center for Great Plains Studies.
Special thanks to Margaret Huettl for providing a video land acknowledgement for this episode.
To listen to the podcast version of this, visit: https://anchor.fm/gp-lectures
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[00:00:00.320]Welcome to Great Plains Anywhere,
[00:00:02.310]a Paul A. Olson lecture
[00:00:03.770]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.470]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:07.830]Today, we're joined by Ken Dewey,
[00:00:09.900]weather expert and professor emeritus
[00:00:12.100]at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
[00:00:14.510]My name is Dijon DeLaPorte.
[00:00:16.140]I am the events coordinator here
[00:00:17.930]at the Center for Great Plains Studies,
[00:00:20.340]located at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
[00:00:23.090]On behalf of the Center for Great Plains Studies,
[00:00:25.260]I would like to begin by acknowledging
[00:00:27.420]that the University of Nebraska
[00:00:28.870]is a land grant institution,
[00:00:31.100]with campuses and programs on the past, present,
[00:00:33.900]and future homelands of the Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe-Missouria,
[00:00:38.920]Omaha, Lakota, Dakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kaw peoples,
[00:00:43.650]as well as the relocated Ho-Chunk,
[00:00:45.750]Iowa, and Sac and Fox peoples.
[00:00:48.320]Please take a moment to consider the legacies
[00:00:50.550]of more than 150 years of displacement, violence,
[00:00:55.070]settlement, and survival that bring us here today.
[00:00:58.370]This acknowledgement and the centering of Indigenous peoples
[00:01:01.380]is a start as we move forward together
[00:01:03.512]for the next 150 years.
[00:01:06.360]Hi, I'm Professor Ken Dewey, emeritus professor,
[00:01:08.710]University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
[00:01:10.468]and I'm here to talk about the weather
[00:01:12.340]and climate of the Great Plains.
[00:01:14.230]Now, I can summarize it all in one sentence.
[00:01:16.636]We are the heartland of extremes.
[00:01:19.090]There's another sentence that I often use as well.
[00:01:21.480]On the Great Plains, It's not normal to be normal.
[00:01:24.510]We'll look at that in just a few minutes.
[00:01:26.710]Meanwhile, the Great Plains can be looked at
[00:01:30.030]in many different ways,
[00:01:31.630]but our Great Plains that I used for my book was defined
[00:01:34.475]pretty much as the Missouri River
[00:01:37.520]to the edge of the front range of the Rockies,
[00:01:41.000]up to Canada and inside Canada into their prairies,
[00:01:43.930]all the way down into Texas.
[00:01:46.430]The purpose of what I want to talk about today is
[00:01:48.693]to explain why the weather is so extreme here,
[00:01:52.480]and then give some of my most favorite examples
[00:01:54.901]of extreme weather out here on the Great Plains.
[00:01:58.290]So why do we have extreme weather on the Great Plains?
[00:02:01.080]Well, very simply we don't have a climate.
[00:02:03.580]And what do I mean by that?
[00:02:04.910]Well, there's Colorado.
[00:02:06.180]They have a mountainous climate.
[00:02:07.410]There's a Pacific Northwest.
[00:02:08.900]They have a cool maritime climate.
[00:02:10.870]We all know about the tropical climate stretching across
[00:02:13.480]the Southeastern US.
[00:02:14.900]And hey, there's a desert hot climate,
[00:02:17.240]but we don't own a climate.
[00:02:18.800]Instead, air masses come at us from all directions
[00:02:22.534]so that we really are not known as,
[00:02:24.960]oh, the climate of the Great Plains.
[00:02:27.620]Whereas we can say the climate of the Great Lakes,
[00:02:29.790]the climate of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, for example.
[00:02:33.090]Looking at the extremes that take place on the Great Plains,
[00:02:36.390]the best measure is to look at temperatures,
[00:02:38.440]and we can look at annual ranges,
[00:02:40.200]monthly ranges, daily ranges,
[00:02:41.930]and then some pretty neat stories
[00:02:44.670]that I want to tell you about of dramatic changes
[00:02:47.400]out here on the Great Plains,
[00:02:48.650]but let's just start with some annual data.
[00:02:51.100]For example, North Dakota has been as hot as 121,
[00:02:56.300]and they've been as cold as minus 60 Fahrenheit.
[00:03:00.320]That's a 181 degree range in temperatures.
[00:03:04.770]Nebraska, not far behind, has been as hot as 118
[00:03:09.880]and as cold as minus 47, for a 165 degree range
[00:03:16.470]that you could potentially experience out here
[00:03:18.530]on the Great Plains.
[00:03:19.600]Even as far south as Texas,
[00:03:21.595]Texas has temperatures as warm as 120,
[00:03:25.020]and temperatures as cold as minus 23,
[00:03:27.910]for a 143 degree range of temperatures.
[00:03:31.216]That's simply amazing.
[00:03:33.840]Looking at monthly extremes.
[00:03:35.620]I want you to imagine for a moment,
[00:03:37.580]someone not living in the Great Plains,
[00:03:40.060]and they have a job offer to go to Bismarck, North Dakota.
[00:03:43.620]They've never been there. They live far away.
[00:03:46.170]They call the person,
[00:03:47.390]they go through the interview and then they're asked,
[00:03:49.737]"When can you come up here"
[00:03:51.080]And the first question the interviewee asks is,
[00:03:54.587]"But what kind of weather might I expect?
[00:03:56.477]"I'm coming in in March."
[00:03:58.220]And they would be told,
[00:04:00.387]"Well, it's been as warm as the eighties,
[00:04:03.637]"but it's also been 20, 30 degrees below zero.
[00:04:06.287]"We do have blizzards.
[00:04:07.477]"Sometimes we have tornadoes
[00:04:08.737]"and sometimes we have violent dust storms."
[00:04:11.170]I don't think the person would continue talking.
[00:04:13.670]I bet they would hang up.
[00:04:14.920]But for me,
[00:04:15.810]that's why I actually came to the Great Plains,
[00:04:17.880]to experience as wide variety of weather.
[00:04:21.250]You heard me mention it's not normal to be normal.
[00:04:24.150]It always catches everyone's attention.
[00:04:26.560]We have in weather,
[00:04:28.130]data that we collect called climate data,
[00:04:30.300]and we have these things called,
[00:04:31.970]what's the normal high for today?
[00:04:33.300]What's the normal low for today?
[00:04:34.950]Let's just take a look at one day for Lincoln.
[00:04:37.680]And we're looking at January 11.
[00:04:40.660]The normal low is 14.
[00:04:42.980]I wonder how often it's been 14 degrees
[00:04:45.870]in the last 100 years.
[00:04:47.900]Very simply, never.
[00:04:50.610]It's been as cold as 30 degrees below zero on that date,
[00:04:54.820]and as warm as the upper thirties on that date,
[00:04:58.120]but no, the normal of 14, we just have never seen that.
[00:05:02.230]Hence that's why we use the expression,
[00:05:04.290]the climate of the Great Plains, hey,
[00:05:05.990]it's just not normal to be normal.
[00:05:08.390]I'd like to share with you an example
[00:05:10.290]of these dramatic changes that can take place
[00:05:12.890]in the Great Plains by looking at March one month,
[00:05:16.350]2016 in North Platte, Nebraska.
[00:05:19.340]The morning began on March 5th, 18 degrees.
[00:05:23.059]Cold, ice on the windshield,
[00:05:25.260]snow that might have to be removed off the driveway.
[00:05:27.320]Oh, but wait a minute.
[00:05:29.020]And yet, the afternoon it was in the low seventies.
[00:05:31.170]Time to get the garden ready.
[00:05:32.910]A few days later on March 20th,
[00:05:34.590]the morning again started at eight degrees,
[00:05:37.080]but at warmed in the afternoon to 80 again.
[00:05:40.839]Imagine the contrast of getting up, it's single digits,
[00:05:45.010]maybe a windshield below zero.
[00:05:47.370]You're bundled up inside the house, but in the afternoon,
[00:05:49.820]it's up around 80 degrees and you're sweating
[00:05:51.960]under the warm spring sun working in your garden.
[00:05:54.540]Now a few days later, it repeated again a 79 degree high,
[00:06:00.060]but the next day,
[00:06:01.570]four inches of snow
[00:06:03.150]and everything was shut down for a few hours.
[00:06:05.430]But that's okay.
[00:06:06.640]The next morning, it was 10 degrees.
[00:06:08.610]And that day at warm back up to 70.
[00:06:11.030]This is just one location on the Great Plains,
[00:06:13.840]but it's an example of not only
[00:06:15.639]it's not normal to be normal,
[00:06:18.040]but it's also a place of extremely dramatic, fast changes.
[00:06:24.890]I'd like to share now.
[00:06:26.270]some of my most favorite extreme weather events that have
[00:06:30.010]occurred out here on the Great Plains.
[00:06:31.670]And I'd like to begin with March 2nd, 1904
[00:06:35.820]in Dodge City, Kansas.
[00:06:37.690]Now, you need to imagine you're there.
[00:06:40.520]There's no TV, there's no radio.
[00:06:42.422]They're probably living out in a house that's isolated
[00:06:45.150]from everybody, with no knowledge or news
[00:06:47.560]of what was going to
[00:06:49.483]happen that day.
[00:06:50.577]That afternoon on March 2nd,
[00:06:51.520]it was 86 degrees.
[00:06:53.121]As they began to work outside in their garden
[00:06:55.900]and wonder what life was going to be like that spring
[00:06:57.810]and summer, they then went in, had their dinner,
[00:07:00.800]probably didn't have lights or TV or radio, of course.
[00:07:03.318]So they just fell asleep, maybe reading by candlelight.
[00:07:06.657]But now they woke up at 10 o'clock
[00:07:09.520]with the windows that had been propped open
[00:07:11.010]because it had been so warm.
[00:07:13.350]It was now down into the single digits,
[00:07:15.710]80 degrees colder, with snow blowing into the windows.
[00:07:20.060]My thought was, these people must have wondered.
[00:07:22.930]Why did we come out and homestead on the Great Plains?
[00:07:25.920]Yet, I know they stayed, and then they must have wondered.
[00:07:28.434]Was that a dream?
[00:07:30.350]Was it really in the upper eighties
[00:07:32.560]Just a few hours ago?
[00:07:34.060]Yes it was.
[00:07:35.120]A story of reality of what it was like
[00:07:37.760]for the early settlers on the Great Plains
[00:07:39.950]when they experienced these dramatic changes.
[00:07:43.400]Here's another story.
[00:07:45.220]Another weather extreme on the Great Plains
[00:07:47.690]called the forgotten snowstorm, or school's out for summer.
[00:07:53.260]Get your snow shovels and sleds, because on May 27th, 1947,
[00:07:59.790]temperatures plunged below freezing,
[00:08:01.900]all the way down to Southeastern Nebraska,
[00:08:04.210]and a snow storm worked its way across the state,
[00:08:07.130]dumping over a foot of snow.
[00:08:09.281]That's right. Crops were planted.
[00:08:12.210]Kids were home for the summer.
[00:08:13.950]They were dreaming of things
[00:08:14.950]they would do in the neighborhood.
[00:08:16.620]And now it was snowing, over a foot of snow.
[00:08:19.110]That snow lingered into the month of June.
[00:08:22.130]That is a big extreme event.
[00:08:24.810]One that's hidden because it lasted for a day or so,
[00:08:27.870]and then went away.
[00:08:29.000]So unless you know somebody from that period of time,
[00:08:31.601]but I discovered it in the history of weather and climate
[00:08:34.530]of the Great Plains and think it's pretty cool.
[00:08:37.480]In my research to produce this book,
[00:08:40.120]the Weather and Climate of the Great Plains,
[00:08:41.810]I ran across a resource. that is absolutely amazing.
[00:08:45.556]Professor Merlin Lawson,
[00:08:47.182]professor emeritus of geography, had looked at the diaries
[00:08:50.810]of the settlers that had moved across the state of Nebraska
[00:08:54.000]in these wagon trains in the 1860s.
[00:08:56.520]These diaries were available in the Historical Society.
[00:08:59.220]He went in there and he chronicled in his own book.
[00:09:02.120]And then he allowed me to pull out some of the excerpts.
[00:09:05.270]He had stories.
[00:09:06.561]Imagine, they're from Europe,
[00:09:09.920]they're moving across the Great Plains
[00:09:11.470]in these long wagon trains.
[00:09:13.280]There were stories of wagon trains
[00:09:15.070]encountering hailstorms that killed the cattle that they
[00:09:18.560]were bringing along.
[00:09:19.510]Ripped through that canvas coverings that injured people,
[00:09:23.230]blooding their heads.
[00:09:25.010]They saw tornadoes,
[00:09:26.457]extreme weather that they never experienced back in Europe.
[00:09:30.510]And as I said in the book,
[00:09:32.140]we all know the movie Wizard of Oz,
[00:09:34.610]but I could imagine they looked at each other,
[00:09:36.820]instead of saying, "Hey Toto,
[00:09:38.347]"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
[00:09:40.380]I think they looked at each other
[00:09:41.610]and they said, "Where are we?
[00:09:43.237]"I don't think we're in Europe anymore."
[00:09:45.601]And they weren't.
[00:09:46.603]They were in the Heartland of extremes.
[00:09:47.700]Much of the book,
[00:09:49.130]I relate stories and examples that are in the history.
[00:09:52.260]Some of the stories that I relate,
[00:09:54.300]I actually got to experience.
[00:09:56.120]The most dramatic one for me
[00:09:57.500]was January 31, 1989.
[00:09:59.960]I had arrived home, having just driven by Holmes Lake,
[00:10:03.260]and we're at Lincoln.
[00:10:04.720]And kids were out in the playground.
[00:10:06.870]People were walking their dogs.
[00:10:08.120]I saw some people on bicycles.
[00:10:09.600]I even saw a family having dinner.
[00:10:12.210]Wait a minute, at a picnic table in January?
[00:10:14.820]Yes, it was in the seventies. It was a beautiful evening.
[00:10:17.860]The windows were rolled down in my car.
[00:10:19.780]I arrived home and the phone was ringing.
[00:10:22.370]I answered the phone who was a colleague of mine,
[00:10:24.560]down on campus and said,
[00:10:25.817]"You won't believe what just happened."
[00:10:27.950]And I said, "Is it bad?"
[00:10:29.170]And he says, "You'll love it.
[00:10:30.747]"Go outside on your deck and hang on."
[00:10:33.250]I'm thinking, well, that's kind of a weird thing.
[00:10:34.680]I knew there was a cold front coming.
[00:10:36.590]So I went out onto the deck and I saw this white wall
[00:10:39.521]rolling coming at me.
[00:10:41.419]I looked down at the thermometer on my deck
[00:10:43.970]and it said 68 degrees.
[00:10:45.590]It was still pretty pleasant.
[00:10:46.830]And then within seconds, I couldn't see anything.
[00:10:49.970]And a mist was hitting my glasses
[00:10:51.900]and freezing on my glasses.
[00:10:53.520]I looked down at the thermometer.
[00:10:54.900]Was already in the twenties,
[00:10:56.350]and then it snowed the hardest I'd ever seen
[00:10:59.150]in my entire life.
[00:11:00.570]And 10 minutes later, it stopped.
[00:11:02.440]There was blue sky, but the temperature in the teens.
[00:11:05.470]And by the morning when I drove back
[00:11:07.990]to the University of Nebraska, there was nobody at the park.
[00:11:11.860]Why would there be? It was below zero.
[00:11:13.870]The lake now had ice across it.
[00:11:15.590]The lake that had waves on it
[00:11:17.210]from the strong southerly winds the day before.
[00:11:19.700]I rolled down the window,
[00:11:21.920]I smiled and said, "Yes, this is why I live here."
[00:11:26.370]I love it.
[00:11:27.300]I love these extremes out here on the Great Plains.
[00:11:30.550]The next story that I want to share with you is perhaps
[00:11:32.940]the most dramatic weather event
[00:11:34.970]that I uncovered in my research
[00:11:37.290]of the weather and climate of the Great Plains.
[00:11:39.440]It occurred in March 26th, 1931,
[00:11:43.310]in a place called Pleasant Hill, Colorado.
[00:11:45.819]Just a couple miles from the Kansas border.
[00:11:49.110]And there was a one room schoolhouse.
[00:11:51.230]And there was a bus picking up kids from both Kansas
[00:11:54.450]and from Colorado,
[00:11:55.702]and bringing them to this one room school house.
[00:11:58.480]It's important to note that it's spring,
[00:12:01.160]and the kids were excited as they got under the school bus.
[00:12:03.720]And in fact,
[00:12:04.610]the story says, some of them even wore spring coats.
[00:12:07.441]They didn't honestly know what they were going to experience
[00:12:11.610]in just a few hours.
[00:12:13.090]As a school bus arrived at the one room schoolhouse
[00:12:16.240]with the 20 kids,
[00:12:17.300]all chattering and noisy and ready to get off the bus,
[00:12:20.400]they were met by the teacher who said,
[00:12:22.687]"A snow storm is bearing down on us.
[00:12:24.707]"And I think this one looks bad.
[00:12:26.867]"We need to have you go to the nearest farmhouse.
[00:12:29.077]"We don't have enough food.
[00:12:30.547]"We don't have enough wood for heat overnight."
[00:12:33.870]The bus driver reluctantly put the kids
[00:12:35.601]back on the bus and he drove into what became,
[00:12:39.070]and we've seen these events on the Great Plains,
[00:12:41.530]zero visibility with blinding snow.
[00:12:44.350]There were no roads.
[00:12:45.820]This was not an area of paved area of paved roads.
[00:12:48.640]This is a rural area with just lanes,
[00:12:51.050]and all these kids were collected from farmhouses.
[00:12:53.830]As the driver attempted to find the nearest farmhouse,
[00:12:56.930]he took a wrong turn, wound up in the ditch,
[00:13:00.260]and became mired into the deep snow drift.
[00:13:02.880]They remained there, cold.
[00:13:04.800]By the way, no heat on board that bus at all.
[00:13:07.430]They remained through the evening
[00:13:08.760]and lasted through the night.
[00:13:10.810]But in the next morning, the bus driver took off.
[00:13:13.281]They did find the bus driver days later,
[00:13:16.050]he had walked along a barbed wire fence
[00:13:18.650]trying to get to rescue and he never made it.
[00:13:20.970]He died in a snowdrift.
[00:13:23.200]The kids began to die one by one, not all of them,
[00:13:27.930]just a few.
[00:13:28.910]They stacked the kids up in the back of the bus.
[00:13:31.759]Imagine by today's trauma that people seem to go through,
[00:13:36.150]when I see students at the University,
[00:13:38.130]they can't find their cell phone or their battery's dead.
[00:13:41.600]Here are these children,
[00:13:43.110]20 of them on a school bus alone with no adult,
[00:13:46.480]as they begin to die.
[00:13:48.010]Later in the day they were rescued,
[00:13:49.580]and they were brought to a nearby farmhouse.
[00:13:51.760]Several of them still died.
[00:13:53.890]Did anything good ever come out of this disaster? Yes.
[00:13:57.510]And every time you see a yellow school bus,
[00:14:00.070]I hope you remember this story,
[00:14:01.860]because a national school bus standard was created
[00:14:05.160]based upon this disaster
[00:14:06.325]that we would have school buses that would be visible,
[00:14:09.810]easy to find in a snowstorm or any disaster.
[00:14:12.640]And even more recently,
[00:14:14.150]numbers on the top and radio communication.
[00:14:16.960]It was a tragic event,
[00:14:18.460]indicative, illustrative of the dramatic changes
[00:14:21.830]that take place in the Great Plains,
[00:14:23.300]but something good did come out of it.
[00:14:25.560]So if someone wants to learn a little bit more
[00:14:27.370]about the Great Plains,
[00:14:28.580]can you share a little information
[00:14:30.720]about the book that you wrote?
[00:14:32.690]I only shared a few stories,
[00:14:34.826]and I know there are so many more,
[00:14:36.850]and they're inside this book!
[00:14:38.920]And I highly encourage you to get this book.
[00:14:41.470]As it says, Great Plains Weather.
[00:14:43.487]It's filled with facts because I am a professor,
[00:14:47.130]but it's filled with many more of these incredible stories,
[00:14:50.130]some of which you, and you'll say,
[00:14:51.807]"I remember that!"
[00:14:52.920]Some of which you'll say,
[00:14:54.097]"I had no idea and I'm glad now I do know."
[00:14:57.660]So I encourage you pick up the book,
[00:14:59.610]order the book, the Great Plains Weather.
[00:15:02.350]We'd like to thank Ken Dewey
[00:15:03.770]for giving us some insight into extreme weather
[00:15:06.260]on the Great Plains.
[00:15:07.840]Find all of our short Great Plains talks and interviews
[00:15:10.740]as videos and podcasts at go.unl.edu/gplectures.
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