Déjà vu?

Central Montana in pattern of weather extremes
Katherine Sears
Managing Editor
Friday, January 14, 2022
Article Image Alt Text

Heavy snow falls in Lewistown in January as a driver and pedestrian have a conversation near the Fergus County Courthouse. The National Weather Service has described this month’s weather as a pattern of extremes, with below normal cold snaps, followed by above normal temperatures. Photo by Katherine Sears

Despite December snowfall, January 2022 in Central Montana is feeling a little bit like the beginning of the intense drought year of 2021. As of Friday, mountain snowpack in the Smith, Judith, Musselshell Basin measured 82 percent of normal. According to Ray Greely, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, that figure was closer to 92 percent at this time last year. 

“On the plains, we have melted out, but as far as mountain snowpack, it’s about 80 percent of normal,” said Greely.

Snowfall so far this year in Great Falls is on par with the average. 

“At this time, we should have about 24 inches, with the snowfall season beginning July 1,” said Greely. “In Great Falls, we have 23.2 inches so far.”

Although official snowfall totals were not available for Lewistown, according to Greely, he felt the area should have received similar totals. 

Greely said the area is experiencing a weak La Niña, which gives a slightly better chance for above average precipitation. Though that isn’t the only factor that determines weather, its presence is promising.

“Just having La Niña present gives us a 70 percent chance for above average precipitation and extreme cold, followed by a milder westerly flow,” said Greely.

Central Montana seems to be in a pattern of extreme cold, followed by warmer than average temperatures. 

“We’re seeing well above and well below averages,” said Greely. “On Wednesday, overnight temperatures were in the mid-40s, which, for January is pretty remarkable.” 

This cycle may continue throughout the near future. 

“In the forecast, we are looking at slightly above normal precipitation and temperatures, which tells us we’re probably going to stay in this pattern where we get snowfall, then it warms up,” said Greely. “Obviously we’re seeing some warmer weather right now, but we still have an opportunity to make up for lost time.” 

With most of Central Montana still in extreme drought, or exceptional drought, making up for lost time is something that needs to happen. 

“In the long-term forecast, we have better chances for above average precipitation in January through March and a slightly better chance for below normal temperatures,” said Greely. “If we do dry out, and have a dry spring, there are major concerns for fire and drought.” 

Greely points out that the trek from drought back to normal is completely circumstantial. 

“It’s hard to say exactly how much it will take to get us out of severe drought,” said Greely. “When the snow falls, we need it to actually soak into the ground.” 

How much moisture makes it into the ground depends on several factors, including how much wind an area experiences, how fast the snow melts, and frost depth. Greely said frost depths fluctuate yearly, and many places right now have a depth of over one foot, making conditions more favorable for the ground to hold moisture. 

“Frost in the ground helps preserve moisture more than what a warm ground would normally do,” said Greely. “This year, it (the frost) probably went a little deeper than normal because when the cold air settled in, the snow pack was very little.” 

Since depths fluctuate, Greely said the NWS doesn’t offer an “average” per se, but he compared this depth to that experienced in February 2019. 

“That was the last time we had a depth of one foot,” said Greely.

Even with a favorable frost depth, Greely said the area will need more moisture to dig out of the drought.

“Normal snow and spring rains will at least put a dent in it, but it will take quite a bit to get completely out,” said Greely. “If we don’t get moisture, we will have problems come the next fire season, and the next year for agriculture.” 

A warm-up is expected over the weekend, with the possibility of a system moving through the area on Tuesday or Wednesday carrying the potential for light snowfall.