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Published March 19, 2010, 12:01 AM

Frost sneaks out faster than last year

It appears, according to some observers, that the frost has come out of the ground a little faster than expected, and much faster than a year ago, when rock-hard soil saturated and frozen, contributed to the flooding up and down the Red River Valley.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

It appears, according to some observers, that the frost has come out of the ground a little faster than expected and much faster than a year ago, when rock-hard soil saturated and frozen, contributed to the flooding up and down the Red River Valley.

This year, it seems more spring melt water is soaking in rather than running off.

One gauge is muddiness.

Robin Brekken of Crookston was out hauling square bales of alfalfa hay in from fields Wednesday, loading trucks bound for Indiana dairy farms. Equipment was slogging through mud, spinning down below 2 feet deep, he said.

That seemed a clear sign the frost was out of that ground, he said.

“The ground has to be soaking some of that moisture up,” he said.

At the UND reporting site, the National Weather Service is seeing that “maybe about the top 5 inches of soil has seen the frost leave,” Brad Bramer, meteorologist for the weather service in Grand Forks, said Thursday. But the frost still runs deep, under that surface, he said.

The weather service earlier said the entire region had “deeper, harder frost for many areas” because of high soil moisture, with minimal snow cover through December with some periods of sub-zero temperatures.

By March, frost depths were generally 13 to 28 inches deep, the weather service said.

The record long stretch of March days and nights in which temperatures never fell below freezing appears to have allowed the frost to sneak out faster than it did a year ago.

Brent Nelson, emergency manager in Walsh County, said he’s heard and seen signs of frost being gone.

“I know there are areas where water is standing in a field and you come by the next day, and a lot of that water has disappeared, so we are assuming some of that is soaking into the ground,” Nelson said Thursday.

The frost line varies a lot, depending on how wet soil was at freeze-up, how much snow fell as an insulating cover, and black soil warms up faster, of course, than grassy fields.

“I know in Grafton, at one spot they were going to get clay from, they couldn’t get to because (the ground) was too soft,” Nelson said. “So, there are areas that the frost is certainly out, to some degree.”

Some doing construction work report being able to dig down 2 or 3 feet, he said.

“Even in my own yard, I have got a big low spot where usually I always have water, and in the morning, it’s gone,” Nelson said. “So, a lot of that frost has come out.”

Willie Huot, of the Grand Forks County agricultural extension service, said he’s seeing and hearing the same.

“It seems to be the conversation that the frost went out quicker, so a lot of this water is soaking in, more than anticipated,” Huot said Thursday. He credits a good snow cover and not so much deep cold this winter that kept the soil from freezing as deeply as it did a year ago.

“That bodes well to how we are going to manage the water this spring,” Huot said. “Maybe it will be soaking in rather than running off.”

In many areas west of the Red River Valley, the snow mostly is melted.

There still is lots of frost in the ground, said Terril Borgeson, who farms west of Park River, N.D., although he’s seen drain tile pipe trickling water out of fields, indicating some frost is gone.

“Just how far the frost is out up here, I’m not sure,” Borgeson said. “Maybe a foot.”

But ditches are running lower than even a few days ago, he said.

“I’m thinking the main runoff around here is over,” Borgeson said. “It’s going to keep trickling for a long time, because we have a lot of snow still in the shelterbelts and coulees.

“But the fields are pretty much bare now,” he said. “Unless we get a bunch more. The worst thing we could get now is rain. An inch or an inch and a half of rain and we’d have some problems again.”

East to west

Bramer said one factor helping mitigate the Red River’s rise has been an “east-to-west” dynamic in the snowmelt, rather than the more typical “south-to-north” melting process in the valley, Bramer said.

There was less snowpack on the Minnesota side of the greater Red River basin region, and the usual warming effect of the evergreen trees across the region helped spur earlier and faster melting in Minnesota’s tributaries to the Red. Bramer said.

That means the Minnesota-side tributaries have tended to all drain at about the same time into the Red, not contributing to the pile-up factor that can hit when flood crests move inexorably north, growing as tributaries from both sides hit coincidentally.

But this year, the Red Lake River, for example, is cresting now in Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, several days before the Red is expected to crest somewhere from 47 to 49 feet, Bramer said.

And the Red is forecast to crest in Grand Forks only a day or two after it’s forecast to crest in Fargo. More typically, the Fargo crest carries north and is a main contributor to the crest in Grand Forks about a week later.

The next week of colder temperatures should slow the melt after two weeks of almost no freezing weather.

Beginning Thursday night, the low temperatures each night will fall well below freezing well into next week, slowing the snowmelt and runoff, and, in theory, the rise in streams and rivers. High temperatures each day the next week will be well above freezing, from the mid-30s Saturday to the mid-40s Sunday, then playing out in the mid-30s into the middle of next week, according to the weather service.

The forecast is for partly sunny and dry conditions — except for some possible snow flurries Friday morning — into next week, when a slight chance of light rain or light snow comes in Tuesday and Wednesday.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com.

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