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Drought persists in northern Montana with El Niño on the way

U.S. Drought Monitor map for Montana as of Oct. 10, 2023. The map shows drought conditions for all of northern Montana north of the Missouri River. Conditions range from "Exceptional Drought" straddling the Continental Divide, to "Severe Drought" stretching from the western border, nearly to the eastern border. "Moderate Drought" dominates the northeastern part of the state. The southern extent of the area, roughly along the Missouri River, is "Abnormally Dry."
U.S. Drought Monitor map for Montana as of Oct. 10, 2023.

According to the latest U.S Drought Monitor map, Montana’s entire southern tier, as well a respectable slice of the state’s mid-section, is drought free. Conditions across northern Montana aren’t as encouraging.

Drought expert Michael Downey says, “I’m surprised they’ve deteriorated as much as they have across the north section. We still have some extreme drought and severe drought across much of that area and of course, all of it is at least in moderate drought.”

Downey, the Drought Planning Coordinator for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says the state’s northern tier received plenty of precipitation from February through early June.

"And then it stopped," Downey says. "Especially on the east side of the Divide, we’re really dependent on rains through June. It’s not uncommon for things to shut off in early July, but essentially it was a month short.”

With summer in the rear-view mirror, forecasters are now looking for clues about potential precipitation trends for the rest of this fall through winter. El Niño looms large. That’s a periodic warming of ocean waters that tends to produce warmer-than-average winters across the northern U.S.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Thursday said it’s favoring a strong El Niño late this fall into winter. However, NOAA also points out not all El Niños are the same and other factors can influence winter weather.

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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