Wildfires are burning, yards are turning crispy brown, some trees are shedding their leaves months early and lake and river levels continue to plummet to historic lows.
The drought of 2021 is already the worst in eight years for Minnesota and continues to deepen daily with virtually no rain forecast for the next week across the Northland and high temperatures well into the 80s and even 90s expected every day.
Duluth is more than 5 inches short of normal rainfall for the year, with International Falls a half-foot short of normal.
While still not as dry as the epic droughts of 1988, 1976 or 1936 — when dry spells persisted over multiple years — Minnesota this year currently has the most drought area of any year since 2013, and the first extreme drought areas since then, said Pete Boulay, climatologist with the State Climatology Office.
So far in 2021, Duluth has received only 10.65 inches of precipitation — rain and snow combined. It would take a continued dry spell into fall and early winter to break the driest full year on record, just 18.11 inches set in 1910, but it’s not out of reach.
While 2021 started out close to normal for precipitation, the drought hit full stride as summer settled in.
“The last 45 days, since June 1, 2021, is the sixth-driest year on record,” said Krystal Kossen, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. “These past 45 days haven't been this dry since 1936.”
Because 2020 ended fairly normal for northern Minnesota precipitation, the drought has been slower to take hold here. But, since January, only two years have ever been drier in Duluth.
“The precipitation deficits, January through June, are substantial,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist with the Minnesota State Climatology Office. From January through June, “only two years since 1895 — 1900 and 1910 — had less precipitation during that six-month period.”
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Farther north it’s even drier, with International Falls experiencing its third-driest year on record, beaten only by 1940 and 1980. This summer so far is the third-driest on record in International Falls and July 2021 is tied with 1964 for the driest ever recorded.
While some areas of southern Minnesota and even northern Wisconsin received soaking rain on Wednesday, very little rain fell in northern Minnesota, where officially a moderate to severe drought continues, according to new data released by the National Drought Monitor on Thursday.
Kossen noted this is the first time most of northern Minnesota has been classified with moderate and severe drought since 2013.
Rivers flows below low
Without rain to recharge their headwaters, Northland rivers are running near all-time historic lows. The St. Louis River at Scanlon has been averaging about 330 cubic feet per second, far below the long-term average of about 1,500 cubic feet per second.
The Big Fork River at Big Falls is running in the 1 percentile, meaning it’s this low only one year every century. A 50 percentile would be the average flow. The Vermilion River near Crane Lake is running in the 2 percentile, with the flow now just 11% of the usual level at this time of year.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Thursday warned boaters that, as lake levels drop to unusually low levels, many boat landings are becoming difficult to use as trailers have to be backed beyond concrete pads or ramps and into muck and rocks.
Only one active fire was still burning in northern Minnesota on Thursday: the Delta fire, about 20 miles east of Ely.
That fire hadn’t grown much in recent days, sitting at about 65 acres, but was only 5% contained as crews have had a hard time gaining access to the site. Trees blown down from a 2016 wind storm crisscross the area, requiring constant chainsaw efforts.
The fire is “burning predominantly on private and National Forest System lands, bumping up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in a thicket of waist- to chest-high blowdown that hampers firefighter access,” Forest Service officials noted.
Meanwhile, most of northern Minnesota remains under a remote campfire ban, with no campfires allowed at remote campsites on state land and in the Superior National Forest, including the BWCAW. Campfires also are banned in Voyageurs National Park.
Campfires are allowed in most drive-to established campgrounds, including state parks, private and Forest Service sites as well as at resorts and yards of homes and cabins.
Most 80-degree days in a Duluth summer
Record: 53 days in 1988.
2020: 42 days hit 80 or above — 11th most on the list.
2021: So far, 27 80-degree days, with several more coming in the short-term forecast.
Source: National Weather Service