A “crippling” winter storm loaded with snow and strong winds is rolling through western Montana, expected to create hazardous travel conditions in the Flathead Valley while ushering in single-digit lows and bitter wind chills ahead of the New Year’s holiday weekend.
The National Weather Service issued its winter storm warning on Wednesday, predicting that the snowfall currently blanketing the Flathead Valley and much of western Montana will continue throughout the night and Friday morning before “surging” late Friday afternoon and continuing into Saturday.
By 5 p.m. Friday, locals can expect intense rates of snowfall between 1-2 inches an hour before tapering off Saturday afternoon. The snow event will be exacerbated by strong easterly winds, which will create whiteout conditions on highways, including the U.S. Highway 93 corridor, as well as frigid wind chills as low as 20 degrees below zero.
“What happens late Friday afternoon into Saturday has potential to be one of the more impressive snow events in recent memory,” the Weather Service stated in Wednesday’s forecast discussion.
Jeff Kitsmiller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, said a robust and moist weather service from the South Pacific near Hawaii is moving in just as a deep and extremely cold arctic air mass converges along the Continental Divide. As the disparate air masses collide, the weather event will be dramatic, Kitsmiller said, as well as cold.
“With those wind chills, people need to be careful. It only takes about 30 minutes to get frostbite in those conditions.”
Mountain pass conditions will be especially dicey, but any highway drivers should expect to encounter near-whiteout conditions in the Flathead and Mission valleys Friday as between 8 and 14 inches of snow are forecast to land there.
Places like Badrock Canyon will see the worst of the wind, the Weather Service warned. Travel heading into the holiday weekend will be extremely challenging along and north of Interstate 90.