Natural Disasters in North Dakota: What Is the Risk?

North Dakota has a population of over 770,000, and a notable percentage of its residents have firsthand experience with natural disasters or have had to evacuate due to them.

However, there is a lack of awareness among some North Dakota residents about the range of natural disasters that could occur in the state.

This analysis aims to provide an overview of the natural disasters that North Dakota could potentially face, discuss the worst natural disasters that have hit the state since 2000, and suggest practical measures that residents can take to prepare for them.

Is North Dakota At Risk of Natural Disasters?

Compared to the rest of the United States, North Dakota has a low risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, North Dakota has had 38 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 31 were declared major disasters. 

North Dakota is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 14 separate $1-billion events have affected the state. Most of these were droughts.

Worst Natural Disasters in North Dakota (Since 2000)

  1. 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion in damages and 123 deaths
  2. Spring-Fall 2002 Drought: $15.1 billion in damages and 0 deaths
  3. Spring-Fall 2013 Drought and Heat Wave: $13.4 billion in damages and 53 deaths
  4. March 2019 Flooding: $12.7 billion in damages and 3 deaths
  5. 2008 Drought: $9.9 billion in damages and 0 deaths

*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.

Most Common Natural Disasters in North Dakota

1. Heavy Snowfall and Winter Storms

North Dakota gets an average of 37 inches of snowfall per year, which ranks it #17 in the country for the most snowfall. However, these numbers are deceptive because some parts of North Dakota receive much more snowfall than others. Fargo and Bismarck both average more than 50 inches of snowfall annually.   

Snowfall in North Dakota often comes in the form of winter storms. Along with South Dakota and Nebraska, North Dakota is the most at-risk state in the country for blizzards. 

The flat landscape of North Dakota makes blizzards worse because there is nothing to block the wind. The climate of the Plains region means that snow is light and fluffy.

Because there is nothing to stop the wind in the flat landscape, snow easily blows into the air and can block visibility. People can get lost in the winter storms and get hypothermia and frostbite.

North Dakota can expect an average of two blizzards yearly, though some years have seen numerous blizzards.

North Dakota Winter Weather Stats

  • Average snowfall per year: 37″
  • Snowfall days per year: 64 days
  • Coldest recorded temperature: -60°F in Parshall in 1936
  • Record snowfall: 24″ in Amidon in 1998

Winter Driving Fatalities

With 19.6 fatal crashes per 1 million drivers, North Dakota ranks #2 in the country for the most dangerous states for winter driving. The state is sparsely populated, so roads can take a long time to be cleared of snow.

There is no mandatory tire chain law in North Dakota, but residents should ensure they have them on their vehicles for winter driving and emergency supplies in case they get stranded.

2. Freeze Events

North Dakota doesn’t have freezing rain as frequently as states to the east, but events do occur. The state can expect approximately 3-6 hours of freezing rain annually.

Freezing rain most frequently occurs during December and January, but fall and spring freeze events also happen. 

Rain-induced icy road conditions increase the likelihood of vehicle accidents and slip-and-fall injuries. In addition, power outages are common during freezing rain events, leaving thousands of people without heating during the coldest months.

3. Heat Waves and Droughts

As with the rest of the country, the risk of heat days is increasing in North Dakota. Currently, North Dakota has an average of less than 5 “dangerous” heat days per year. These are defined by the National Weather Service as days where the heat index is 103F or above. By 2050, the number of dangerous heat days in North Dakota is expected to increase to 20 days per year.

In addition to seeing more dangerous heat days, North Dakota will also see more “Local Hot Days.” Local Hot Days are defined as “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature than an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.” Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.  

An increase in Local Hot Days is associated with health problems like strokes, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur. Energy demands also increase from air conditioning use.

All parts of North Dakota are expected to have an increase in Local Hot Days, but Adams County is particularly at-risk. By 2053, Adams is expected to have 14 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 93 95.8℉.

Droughts often accompany heat waves. As an agricultural state, droughts can have a huge economic impact on North Dakota. It also further strains the state’s already-scarce water resources and increases the risk of wildfires.

4. Wildfires

North Dakota doesn’t have lots of wildfires per year. However, the state is mainly covered by grassland, crops, and pastures. Drought conditions mean fire can spread quickly across the dry grasses, leading to massive fires. As a result, North Dakota is at high risk for wildfires.

Because of climate change, the risk of wildfires in North Dakota is growing. By 2050, an estimated 58% of all properties in the state will be at risk of wildfire.

North Dakota Wildfire Stats

  • Acres burned in 2021: 49,347
  • Number of fires in 2021: 946
  • Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 355,519

5. Flooding

North Dakota is at risk for flood disasters. The state has over 54,000 miles of rivers and streams. During spring, heavy rains and snowmelt can cause rivers to swell and flood. The Red River Valley is particularly susceptible to flooding, which occurs approximately once every three years. 

Since 2000, North Dakota has been affected by two billion-dollar flood events. The first was in May 2011 when snowmelt from the Northern Rocky Mountains and heavy rainfall caused the Missouri and Souris Rivers to flood. An estimated 11,000 people in Minot, ND, had to evacuate their homes. Thousands of acres of farmland and 4,000 homes were flooded. 

In March 2019, snowmelt and heavy rains again caused widespread flooding in the Midwest region. The event caused approximately $12.7 billion in damages, one of the region’s costliest floods. 

North Dakota Flood Stats

  • 56,400 properties at substantial risk in 2020
  • 87,100 properties at risk by 2050
  • 57,700 properties at substantial risk by 2050
  • 12,400 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
  • 30,400 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000

Which Areas of North Dakota Are Most At-Risk of Flooding?

Floods can occur in all parts of North Dakota, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of North Dakota with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations). 

  • West Fargo: 41%
  • Grand Forks: 17%
  • Mandan: 14%
  • Fargo: 12%
  • Dickinson: 11%
  • Cannon Ball: 11%
  • Bismarck: 9%

Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is increasing in many parts of North Dakota. By 2050, an estimated 9.3% of all properties in the state will be at substantial risk of flooding.

6. Tornados

North Dakota averages 31 tornadoes yearly, but most are very weak. In recent history, the state has not had an F5 tornado and only six F4 tornadoes.   Since 2000, there have been three tornado-related deaths in North Dakota and 72 injuries.   Because the state is sparsely populated, tornadoes do not cause much property damage. 

This doesn’t mean North Dakota residents shouldn’t be prepared for tornadoes though. They should have a storm shelter and emergency radio with tornado alerts set so they can take cover quickly.

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7. Hail

The southwestern part of North Dakota is located in “Hail Alley,” region in the United States known for having a high frequency of hail storms. From 2018 to 2021, the state averaged 204 hail events per year, ranking it as #7 for hail frequency. Many of these hail events were very destructive. For hail damage per capita, North Dakota ranks #5 in the country.

One of the worst hail events in North Dakota history occurred in 2016 in Burleigh County. The storm produced hailstones as large as baseballs and caused approximately $50 million in property damages.

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