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After A Warm January, More Snow Forecast For Western Montana

Weather story for Feb. 4, 2020.
National Weather Service Missoula
Weather story for Feb. 4, 2020.

Western Montana’s winter is a paradox this year. On the one hand it’s been a season of near-record warmth. On the other, mountain snowpack currently ranges from normal to slightly above normal.

Winter, meanwhile, is about to throw another twist our way.

According to the National Weather Service; Missoula, Kalispell and Butte experienced the warmest January in 14 years.

Missoula recorded its fourth warmest January on record. Kalispell had its eighth warmest, and Butte had its seventh warmest ever. What's more, Missoula so far hasn’t had a single sub-zero day. That’s happened only twice in 127 years.

This is one weird winter. So, what’s going on?

"We had a lot of cold air locked up up in Alaska and Canada early on this winter," says National Weather Service Meteorologist Ryan Leach. "When it finally did come out, it moved east of the Continental Divide, out into the Midwest and of to the east. So we really got missed by most of the cold air, and missed our opportunity at that point to get really cold. That just had to do with how the overall global-scale weather pattern set up this winter."

Leach says climate science is about long term averages and frequency of extreme events. He and his weather service colleagues specialize in short-term weather forecasts, but he’s not ready to conclude that this mild winter is a sign of global climate change

"I will say there are plenty of places that it wasn’t a record high, so if it’s happened in the past -- I don’t know. Really, we’re just focused on the weather, and it was just one event. And it was actually followed by a pretty good cool down, and that is a pattern we see in the weather quite a bit; where you'll have it getting very warm, and it's followed by a good cold front, some wind and a cool down."

Forecasters say starting Wednesday, western Montana valleys could get a sloppy mix of wet snow and rain.

"For Missoula the most likely is gonna be around, probably 3 inches of snow, and then similar amounts in the Bitterroot Valley. But if things slow down little bit and the cold air’s in place, we might pick up 6 inches, too. Thursday looks like the warmer day, and I think it’s very likely we’re going to see a transition to rain."

Some of the region’s higher elevations are in for another pounding of heavy snow.

"Looking at Wednesday we have 8 inches forecast on Lookout pass, but that drops off pretty quickly to the east," Leach says. "If you head down looking at Lolo Pass we’ve got just under a foot forecast there. As you head more into the backcountry we’re looking at a foot of snow pretty easily on Wednesday, and then another, maybe, foot to 14 inches on Thursday in the mountains."

Leach says Butte could pick up a few inches of snow on Thursday.

Daytime highs across western Montana will be in the 30s and 40s for the next few days, followed by more scattered snow showers and daytime highs in the 30s.

Looks like last weekend’s temporary bout of springtime temperatures was just a fleeting mirage. There’s plenty more winter ahead of us.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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