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A snow plow is on display recently at the Department of Transportation office in Fargo. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

Winter whiteout?

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Think of Gregory Gust as the fall equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil. But instead of a groundhog that predicts either an early spring or three more weeks of winter, Gust, of the National Weather Service, just has one thing to say.

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Be ready for a humdinger of a winter.

During a media conference last Tuesday at the North Dakota Department of Transportation office in Fargo, Gust was one of three speakers to discuss preparedness for the fast-approaching winter during, what Gov. Jack Dalrymple coined, Severe Winter Weather Awareness Week. Also on hand were Brent Muscha of the NDDOT, and Lieutenant Aaron Hummel of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

While all three touched on their organization's specific duties and responsibilities, there was an overall message that was repeated and made clear: public safety means being informed.

"Our motto this year is 'know before you go,'" Muscha said.

Unseasonable weather all around

The Midwest is coming off an unseasonably warm October.

"A tremendous autumn," Gust said; one that was 7.1 degrees above normal in the Fargo area during the last month, in fact.

But that was set to change in a hurry last weekend, when a weather system that came down from Alaska brought the first taste of winter to the region.

Although any snow that fell likely didn't stick around for long, Gust said residents can expect more to come in the near future.

Possibly much more, in fact.

"This likely is not what you want to hear," Gust said. "But it is important that we prepare for what will be extreme snow and extreme cold."

Extreme is a relative term, so Gust compared the upcoming winter to that of 2010-11, when record snowfalls totaling 88.5 inches fell in Fargo, and cold riddled the region.

"We should be planning on a winter similar to last year," he said, the result of a combination of la Niña weather patterns and arctic weather systems.

That means below normal temperatures (the average for the months of December through February in Fargo ranges from 9.1 degrees to 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and above normal snowfall (average annual snowfall for the Fargo is 49.6 inches).

That either could mean more overall days of snow, or "one or two more extreme events to drop the average down," Gust said.

To help the public know the dangers of winter weather, NWS has devised a new weather alert: an extreme cold warning.

An extreme cold warning is based on apparent temperatures, much like a heat index during the summer. It is designed to take the place of wind-chill warnings, and will be enacted when apparent temperatures reach 30- to 35-below-zero for an extended period of time.

The NWS used the alert for the first time last winter, but only twice in northern Minnesota, never here.

Information is key

With winter weather also comes inherent dangers, many of which stem from traveling on icy or snow-covered roadways.

This was punctuated last year by several blizzards, including one over New Years that left hundreds of drivers stranded on Interstate 94 west of Fargo.

According to the officials Tuesday, accidents like this can be avoided if travelers follow safety advisories, and stay informed to changing conditions.

NDDOT updates its website as frequently as possible, especially during inclement weather. Muscha said snowplow drivers call in on a regular basis, and that information is used to continually keep would-be travelers up to speed.

The department also has a phone service for travel advisories, where users need only call 511 to get information that includes road closures and conditions.

This year, NDDOT updated its travel information map (www.dot.nd.gov/travel-info-v2), which now is equipped with everything from road conditions, to a scrolling message window with travel and weather warnings, to cameras and even radar.

The new and improved website should be well received, especially considering how much the old one was utilized. Last March, for example, was "a very busy month" for the NDDOT, Muscha said. The department's website had approximately 1.2 million hits, and its phone service received more than 165,000 calls.

If anything, that means the DOT's efforts of information dispersal are working.

But it only takes one uninformed person to cause an accident like some of the pileups from last winter. That's why Hummel and the Highway Patrol is hoping driver swill take extra caution while traveling this go-round.

First and foremost, drivers should pay attention to weather changes, and drive according to conditions, not necessarily the posted speed.

"Speed limits do not apply when conditions are poor," Hummel said.

Drivers should follow the three-second rule when following another vehicle, and increase that time as conditions worsen.

Muscha had the same words of caution when driving around snowplows.

There were 35 snowplow-vehicle crashes last year, which was higher than the previous two years, he said. Drivers should stay a minimum of five car lengths from a snowplow, and be extra careful when attempting to pass one.

"A snowplow hitting a drift can cause whiteouts," he said. "And never pass one on the right."

Having proper survival gear is also a must for winter travel, and making sure vehicles are ready for the winter is critical.

"A good set of snow tires is an invaluable investment, especially for young or inexperienced drivers," Hummel said.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol currently is in the process of retrofitting all of its patrol vehicles with snow tires.

Above all else, drivers should always wear their seatbelts. Eight-two percent of fatal crashes were the result of the victim not wearing a seatbelt.

Rules meant to save lives

If resident utilize all the tools available to stay informed and safe during the winter season, the likelihood of accidents and deaths can be greatly reduced.

"We want drivers to follow the rules, not only for the safety of themselves, but for others," Hummel said.

If conditions are bad enough, the Highway Patrol and NDDOT collaborate, and may choose to close roads. Often, this is the result of "irresponsible driving during hazardous conditions," Hummel said.

Drivers should take any trip seriously, even short ones, and should not get complacent as the winter wears on.

"Winter is inevitable, and all these organization just want people to be able to enjoy it," Gust said. "We drive on a skating rink for five months out of the year and don't even think about it."

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