Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Looking at the brown hills and lawns around Missoula, it’s clear that little moisture has dropped on Montana by the start of the new year. The question is whether that trend will continue into spring.

As of Jan. 1, Montana’s mountains were holding only about half of the snowpack they normally receive by now, and some held even less.

Around Missoula, the upper Clark Fork River basin, which includes the Blackfoot River, has set a record for the lowest Jan. 1 snowpack, with 14 snow stations reporting an average of 3 inches of snow-water equivalent, a measure of the amount of water the snow contains. That means the basin holds just 42% of its normal Jan. 1 snowpack. The Bitterroot basin is doing slightly better with 48%, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The part of the state that is best off is the Tongue River basin in southeast Montana with 60% of normal. Worst off is the Sun-Teton-Marias region in north-central Montana with just a quarter of its normal snowpack.

This is due to the low precipitation that occurred in November and December, although more fell west of the Continental Divide than on the east. The upper Clark Fork basin received only half the moisture it received in December while the north-central part of Montana received about a third of its normal precipitation for the month.

The low snowpack and moisture totals measured since October are the result of this year’s El Nino trend, where less moisture and more heat comes in from the Pacific to hit Montana. Last year, 2.5 inches of snow blanketed Missoula in one day on Dec. 10, while this year, Missoula received just 5.6 inches of snow for all of November and December, according to the National Weather Service in Missoula.

For the whole of 2023, Missoula was slightly drier and warmer than average, according to the National Weather Service in Missoula. The yearly totals showed Missoula received a quarter of an inch less precipitation and the average temperature was 2.3 degrees higher than normal. The temperature in West Glacier was just as warm but the total precipitation was more than 9 inches below normal.

Although they haven’t crunched all the data yet, climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculate there’s more than 99% chance that 2023 will have had the hottest global average temperature recorded in 174 years, beating out 2016. Extremely hot temperatures during the second half of the year pushed the average up. Each month from June to November was the hottest ever recorded globally.

Unfortunately, next year could challenge 2023 for the top spot as weather patterns combine with increasing climate change. A strong El Niño has already begun, where ocean temperatures warm up in the eastern Pacific. El Niño years are typically hotter, because a large amount of heat that's stored in the ocean is released to the atmosphere.

The low moisture amounts are pushing Montana back into worsening drought conditions. At the beginning of October, 56% of the state had no drought, but that dropped to 44% as of the end of December, mainly in the south-central and south-east, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

About 55% of the state is at least abnormally dry while much of the western quarter of the state has moderate drought. Parts of Mineral and Sanders counties are in severe drought. The three-month outlook shows drought persisting or developing further in western Montana.

Heading into January, the 14-day temperature outlook shows Montana has a 50-60% chance of having cooler than normal temperatures and above normal precipitation, although January tends to be a drier month in western Montana. But that chance will decrease as the month progresses, and the bad news is the three-month outlook shows a 50-60% chance of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation in western Montana through March.

It’s too early to say much about the effect on summer stream flows, but the predicted warm, dry winter is likely to lead to a hot, dangerously dry summer.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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