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Crazy Winter Gives Glimpse Of Climate Change Challenges Ahead

Eric Whitney
There's still snow high in the mountains of Western Montana, but lower elevations are melting out.

Backcountry skier Ryan Swantner is willing to work hard to get in his turns, but lately he’s had to work harder than usual.

Like last weekend, when Swantner and some friends tried to ski Mt. Shields in Glacier National Park, usually a sure bet for spring skiing. But this year, they had to hike through mud for two miles before they could even put their skis on.

"And even then, we start skinning, and you’re climbing over trees that are down that are usually covered, and you’re climbing over patches of grass and mud with your skis still on your feet. We saw grizzly bear tracks everywhere, which is about three weeks to a month early," Swanter said.

But Swantner and his friends kept going, and they did eventually find some snow.

"And it wasn’t bad once we got to the summit of Shields. We were definitely committed to making turns that day."

Ed Snook, a hydrologist with the Bitterroot National Forest, says Swantner’s experience is exactly what the data are telling him about this odd snow year in Montana: almost everything below 7,000 feet melted off very early, but if you’re willing to hike through miles of muddy terrain full of hungry grizzly bears, you can still find some snow up high.

“We got enough precipitation early that the snowpack above that elevation is quite dense. And that’s why our remote sensors are telling us right now that we’re still running 80 to 90 percent of average snowpack. Even though the extent of it is limited, what’s there is holding a lot of water."

That means Montana has banked some of the moisture it will need in the coming months. But that remaining snow is melting fast. Snook says the lower Clark Fork River is running roughly two-and-a-half times higher than its average for this date, and the Bitterroot is running is closer to three times higher than normal.

"So what’s happening is we have below average snowpack and we have above average flows. That’s a lot like having a checking count where you’ve got no income coming in but you’re still writing checks. So, eventually you’re gonna break the bank."

But Snook says there is still a little hope for slowing that process down. Cooler temperatures are predicted for the next few weeks, and we could get another foot of new snow at high altitudes.

So how unusual has this year been, with this mild winter out west, while places like Boston have been buried? And what, if anything, does it say about longer term trends related to climate change?

“No single year proves that global warming is real or unreal," says Steve Running, a University of Montana ecology professor who has studied climate change for over 30 years.

"Unfortunately what it does do is illustrate to us the kind of winters that we’ll probably have more commonly 40, 50 years from now, where we will have regular winter rainfall and you get rain on snow events that can cause flooding, and particularly then wash away the snow pack that you then were counting on the following summer," Running says.

He says in the last 50 years we’ve already shaved two weeks off of winter in western Montana. In five more decades, winter will be a full month shorter than it was in the mid 20th-century, and summers will be a month longer. That makes years like this an important harbinger of things to come.

"This should be a good practice for our water managers to think through, see how we can mitigate our water use and see if we can get ahead of this. This is clearly coming and I hope enlightened water management can make this not too disruptive to us over the next 50 years," Running says.

Other western states are getting an even harsher crash course in water management. In fact, the Forest Service’s Ed Snook says Montana is actually doing much better than the rest of our region.

"Washington, Oregon, California especially, there’s no snowpack, and the year-to-date precipitation is also very low. Montana and northern Wyoming are the only places that are average or above. So we’re exceedingly lucky."

So even though most Montana ski areas have shut down early or are closing soon, backcountry enthusiasts like Ryan Swantner haven’t totally given up hope for a few more turns.

"Cross our fingers and hope we get some rain, and maybe some more late spring snow," he says. "We’ll dig out all of our ski gear back out and go skiing some more if does show back back up."

Even if he has to walk through mud puddles to find it.

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