Record warmth could exacerbate drought conditions, wildfire risk in northern US

Jessica Storm
·5 min read

AccuWeather forecasters say record-challenging warmth is going to build in the North Central states through Saturday afternoon as drought conditions continue and the risk for wildfires increases.

As residents of the Northeast experienced a chilly blast of air, warmer conditions expanded from west to east through the Plains on Friday, partially thanks to recent lower cloud cover and propelled by a warm front. To the west of the front, temperatures rose into the 80s.

This includes Rapid City, South Dakota, which reached only 56 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday and has had temperatures steadily rising since then. Temperatures surged into the lower 80s by early Friday afternoon and reached the middle 80s before the end of the day. The average high on April 30 for Rapid City is in the middle 60s.

This image, captured Saturday afternoon, May 1, 2021, shows warmth surging northward into the northern Plains. (AccuWeather)

Omaha, Nebraska, and Denver are other cities that saw temperatures soar to the upper 70s or even lower 80s on Friday.

In the area east of the front, where the warmth has yet to arrive by Friday, places like Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Minneapolis only saw temperatures as high as the lower 60s. Even farther east, Chicago didn't even reach the 50s on Friday.

By Saturday, however, these cities will also have temperatures entering the 80s as warm air completely invades the region.

The month of May will be off to an especially warm start as temperatures soar into the 80s on Saturday across most of the North Central states, including places like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri. High temperatures will soar into the 90s in small areas of the Plains.

Several cities can even take a shot at record temperatures on Saturday.

Denver is forecast to hit 84 F on Saturday, approaching the 1992 record of 87. Omaha is forecast to experience a high of 89 on the same day, which would approach the daily record of 93 F from 1965.

Other locations including Sioux Falls and Rapid City, South Dakota, are set to come close to record temperatures on May 1 as well.

While this heat may feel great to many fans of warm weather, it will be of no help to drought conditions or limiting fire risk, a similar situation to what's occurring in the Southwest.

Areas of eastern Montana and western portions of the Dakotas are at an elevated fire threat due to low relative humidity values, frequent wind gusts upwards of 20 mph and a limited recorded rainfall for the month of April, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Alyssa Smithmyer.

Over 40% of the High Plains are suffering from severe drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor, with North Dakota reporting over 80% of the state within extreme drought criteria.

Jordan, Montana, has only received roughly 38% of its normal monthly precipitation, with less than an inch in April, according to Smithmyer. Normally, this area has about 1.27 inches of precipitation in the month.

Miles City, Montana, has taken even more of a hit, with a dismal 26% out of its typical 1.37 inches of April precipitation.

It was a very dry, windy and warm day across the Bismarck area Friday, increasing the ability for wildfires to spread out of control rapidly.

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Red flag warnings were issued by the National Weather Service for Friday from 11 a.m. MDT to 8 p.m. MDT across Montana and the Dakotas, including Minot, North Dakota, and Havre, Montana. The Storm Prediction Center also highlighted a significant portion of Montana and North Dakota that will be under elevated fire risk.

AccuWeather meteorologists suspect some precipitation is on the way to the North Central states Saturday; however, it could be a double-edged sword as thunderstorms can produce lightning and ignite dry brush, with high winds to spread fires.

"A weak storm system will enter the central and northern Rockies Saturday afternoon, bringing the threat of scattered thunderstorms and showers to the region," said AccuWeather Storm Warning Meteorologist William Clark.

Showers and thunderstorms can bring sprinkles to dry areas of the High Plains, and forecasters suggest there may not be much lightning associated with this storm after all, which could result in a lower fire risk. High winds will still be a concern, however.

"Abnormally warm air with low relative humidity will lead to favorable conditions for dry microburst winds across the area," Clark said.

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A microburst is a localized column of sinking air, or a downdraft, within a thunderstorm, according to the NWS. This type of weather phenomenon can cause considerable damage as it roves across the Plains.

"These windy showers and storms will progress into the High Plains during the late afternoon and evening hours of Saturday," said Clark.

Areas of Montana and the Dakotas are forecast to receive some precipitation on Sunday as well, according to Smithmyer, bringing a welcome pattern change to the drought-stricken North Central states.

St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Sioux Falls are just some of the several cities that can expect showers in the area on Sunday, while Denver and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, could receive thunderstorms.

As next week begins, temperatures across the region are expected to take a dive back to just below normal before storms rumble across the Plains again.

Some severe weather is possible in the eastern Plains late on Tuesday, according to AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok.

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