Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) While January brought a few snowstorms and a few cold days, it wasn’t enough to improve the winter snowpack, which is still about half of what it should be across Montana.

If you look out across the bare hills around Missoula and are concerned, your feelings aren’t steering you wrong. Precipitation was below normal for the month of January across most of Montana, except for the northeast, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The upper Clark Fork and Bitterroot basins received around 75% of the moisture that normally falls in January while precipitation in the lower Missouri River basin around Fort Peck was slightly above average. When combined with the previous two months of low precipitation, the upper Clark Fork basin has about 60% of the moisture normally received since Oct. 1, while the Bitterroot basin is slightly better at 67%.

The mountain snowpack is worse, because due to this winter’s warm temperatures, some of that moisture has fallen as rain instead of snow.

The Upper Clark Fork basin has 44% of the snowpack it normally received between 1990 and 2020. The Bitterroot Range has received a little more snow, putting it at 60% of normal. Northwestern Montana is doing the best, but it still has only two-thirds of its normal snowpack, while on the other side of the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountain Front is suffering the most with just a third of its normal snowpack.

A recent Dartmouth College study was able to connect such reductions in snowpack to climate change.

The lack of precipitation has plunged most of Montana, particularly the west side, back into drought, according to the USDA National Drought Monitor. As of Feb. 1, almost 20% of the state is in severe drought, including the mountain ranges around Missoula and Dillon. Another 20% is in moderate drought. Just one-fifth of the state - a region in the east between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers - remains free of drought.

Warm winter temperatures aren’t helping the snowpack. Montana did experience a few days of below-zero temperatures during January, which allowed Missoula to set a record low temperature of -17 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 15. Kalispell hit a record low of -26 on the same day.

However, last week, daytime temperatures in the valleys around Missoula soared back into the 40s - 4 to 6 degrees above normal - while the nights scarcely dipped below freezing. Central Montana saw daytime temperatures that were more than 10 degrees above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lewistown experienced a temperature difference of 106 degrees over about 15 days, jumping from a low of -43 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 63 on Jan. 30, according to the National Weather Service.

Things may change briefly over the next week but the overall trend of warmer-and-drier is predicted to remain.

Over the next few days, two atmospheric rivers that are spilling off the Pacific Ocean will combine with a low-pressure trough to bring cooler temperatures and some moisture into Montana. However, National Weather Service models indicate the storms could track mainly out of central Idaho across southwest Montana, dropping up to 6 inches of snow in the high mountains. Warm temperatures in the valleys from Kalispell to Hamilton could produce mainly a rain-snow mix.

After that, the two week outlook puts temperatures and precipitation amounts at near normal but the state is predicted to warm up and get drier again through the end of the month. NOAA’s three-month outlook keeps temperatures higher than normal across the northern states, and western Montana could continue to see drier-than-normal conditions.

With about three months of winter-ish weather to go, it’s too early to say whether streamflows will be low due to poor winter snowpack and low soil moisture. But the forecast doesn’t bode well, and many Montanans know the summer may be a tough one.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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