“Whale of a storm last night,’’ my dad used to say whenever a wicked patch of rain or wind blew through our part of the county.
As I recall, Dad only had to say that once or twice a summer. We had a fair number of storms on the farm, but most of them didn’t have the intensity and destructive force to rate the “whale of a storm’’ label. When a storm of that magnitude did rip through the countryside, people talked about it for days and days.
It seems to me a lot of folks in South Dakota this year could be saying “whale of a storm last night.’’ They could say it almost every day somewhere in our state. We still have a fair number of those storms that a TV weather person might call “your garden-variety event,’’ but we also have a lot of weather systems that rate the “whale of a storm’’ moniker.
Not long before we moved from Fort Pierre this summer, we returned from a trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation just ahead of a powerful, powerful windstorm. The rain hit just as I closed the garage door, and by the time I’d walked through the house to peer out the patio door and see how the canal was behaving, the wind had risen to a level that pushed small walls of water over the rest of the choppy water.
Since we moved to a place on the river bank in Chamberlain two weeks ago, we’ve had several rain storms. My dad would have classified a couple of them as “showers’’ and a couple of others as “pretty decent little rains.’’ At least two of the storms, though, were full-fledged “whales.’’
During the first one, the rain fell so hard I could barely see the river bank from about 40 feet away. We had to attend an event at the convention center across the river that evening. The rain still crashed down in dark sheets as we drove down the street, and at the bridge approach, we drove through a small lake.
The second massive storm since we moved to town came Saturday evening. Again it featured heavy rain, but the wind was blowing so fiercely that it was difficult to tell how much rain was actually falling and how much of what was hitting the roof and windows was purely a horizontal assault. By the time the weather had exhausted its fury, we had several tree branches on the lawn and drops and trickles of water sneaking through windows and floorboards. Like my dad, I said that was a whale of a storm.
I don’t know much about global warming, but I think there’s something to the business of climate change. I began reading scientific reports on that topic when I started working for the state agency that includes the Office of Emergency Management. Emergency response depends pretty heavily on knowing what the weather is doing, whether that means torrential rains, wildland fires, blinding blizzards or scorching drought. What I read suggested to me that the climate has been changing in ways that contribute to more intense weather events. For example, a storm that used to bring an inch of rain seems to bring five or six inches somewhere in the region. My dad, were he alive today, could have said “a whale of a storm’’ 10 or 12 times already this summer.
I’m told the Missouri River, if the current flows continue, will experience the second highest level of runoff on record. The record runoff, of course, happened in 2011, and anyone who lived in South Dakota that year knows that story. Lake Oahe was a few inches below the top of the emergency spillway that summer, the highest it has ever been. But if memory serves, as recently as 2006 or 2007 the lake was at a record low level, something like 45 feet lower than the record high. Quite a swing.
I can’t say for certain if the wild fluctuations in the river, or the wacky storms we’ve been experiencing, are the result of climate change. But it sure would be nice to know.