'Historic' weather pattern brings thunderstorms, high winds, heavy snow to Northland

After the region smashed daily temperature and precipitation records Wednesday, conditions rapidly turned colder and windier early Thursday.

A walker nears a wall of blowing snow on Park Point in Duluth on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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Just about every weather event short of a hurricane was passing through the Northland in a pattern that the National Weather Service in Duluth described as "historic."

An unprecedented string of December thunderstorms across the region Wednesday night gave way to heavy snow and high winds by Thursday morning.

The Weather Service had warned of "flash freeze" conditions due to the forecast for significant rainfall immediately followed by rapidly falling temperatures, causing the potential for black ice to form on roadways. In Duluth, rain had transitioned to snow by 7 a.m. and continued to intensify over the next several hours.

Duluth set a daily record high for Dec. 15, topping out at 49 degrees — narrowly beating the 48-degree record set in 1877. Ashland got all the way up to 55. Hibbing had 1.44 inches of precipitation Wednesday, a four-fold smashing of its daily record.


Weather graphic.jpg
Contributed / National Weather Service

But conditions changed rapidly overnight. The Duluth International Airport went from 47 degrees at midnight to just 20 degrees by 9 a.m. Thursday, with temperatures continuing to fall throughout the day. Westward winds were steadily near 30 mph, with gusts up at least 47 mph reported at the airport.

The Weather Service in Duluth had issued a rare "high wind warning" for the region, noting that potential record-low pressures could cause wind speeds to reach "climatological maximums."

A Minnesota Department of Transportation plow truck spreads deicer on Interstate 35 in Duluth during the morning commute Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Southern Minnesota was believed to have experienced the first December tornado in state history Wednesday night, as the brunt of the severe storms appeared to stay south of the Northland. Police in Stanley, Wisconsin, east of Eau Claire, were reporting "devastation" with several residences and buildings destroyed in a swift-passing storm around 2:30 a.m.

There were no immediate reports of any widespread power outages, storm damage or crashes in Northeastern Minnesota or Northwestern Wisconsin.


Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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