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Snowpack Levels Near Normal For Most Of Western Montana

Snow-Water Equivalent Percentage of 1981-2010 Normal, Feb. 1 2020.
USDA-NRCS Montana Snow Survey Staff
Snow-Water Equivalent Percentage of 1981-2010 Normal, Feb. 1 2020.

Talk about a comeback. Montana’s snowpack made significant gains last month, according to the federal government’s latest snowpack report for Montana. All river basins now report near to above-normal levels.

Forecasters didn’t necessarily expect it to work out like this. 2019 ended on a particularly dry note. Snowpack in some locations, especially in northwest Montana’s river basins, was approaching near record lows by November and December.

"Actually most of them west of the Divide had a couple of really dry months. That led to some deficits with regards to snowpack and our water-year precipitation," says Lucas Zukiewicz, water supply specialist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman.

According to Zukiewicz, that worrisome dry spell broke right before New Year’s Eve.

“It is a completely different story than last month at this time,” Zukiewicz says. “There were some concerns that we were gonna have a persistent weather pattern which was going to be below average precipitation through the winter. We saw a major turnaround. It’s snowing a lot here right now in Bozeman and we’re anticipating a good bit more. So hopefully this is good foreshadowing for this next month."

Montana’s quality snowpack is especially noteworthy given the relatively mild winter.

“We can think of it two ways. And on of the things which I think is unique about this past month is that we are seeing valley precipitation totals which are below average for the month, while our mountain locations just got a steady stream of moisture," Zukiewicz says. "We did have rain reported, even in the mountains though this month as well. So, it was warm. The temperatures were above average for this month, but we did see above average precipitation with that in the Mountains and we’ve been able to continue to build on that snowpack.”

Zukiewicz says Montana is now about two-thirds through its snow accumulation season. The low elevation snowpack is expected to peak in mid to late March in some areas, but the high elevation snowpack should continue to gain through mid April.

The Climate Prediction Center’s 8 to 14 day outlook calls for colder-than-normal temperatures and wetter-than-normal conditions in central and eastern Montana. Western Montana could see normal precipitation  patterns.

The short-term forecast however calls for more slop in the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys, where upwards of 6 inches of fresh snow are possible by Friday morning.

Friday afternoon’s highs could hit the low 40s.

Travel could get sketchy in portions of central and southwest Montana where higher elevations will continue to get heavy snow and gusty winds. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for the Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Bozeman areas through mid-day Friday. Snow that’s partially melted in the lower elevations could refreeze Friday morning creating dangerous driving conditions.

According to, the avalanche danger for the west central Montana backcountry is "considerable" on wind-loaded slopes, and "moderate" on all other slopes. That forecast expires midnight Thursday.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center Thursday issued avalanche warnings for multiple mountain ranges. Those warnings are valid through early Friday morning.

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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