Two-Year City Snowfall Hits Record Low

By Beacon Staff

While most of Montana and the continental U.S. experience worsening drought conditions, this corner of the state is exhibiting a stark contrast in weather patterns.

Separate meteorological reports released recently show the mountains in Northwest Montana benefitted from winter snowfall more than anywhere else in the state this year, while the valley floor in Kalispell broke a 120-year-old record for its lack of snow.

Through April 1, snowpack levels in the mountain ranges of the Flathead and Kootenai river basins were at the 30-year median, ranking better than anywhere else in Montana, according to the latest survey data from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

SNOTEL sensors planted at different mountain elevations, ranging between 5,000 and 7,500 feet, showed the snow accumulation in the Flathead is at 99 percent of average, according to Brian Domonkos, NRCS water supply specialist.

Specifically, the North Fork Flathead River watershed is at 103 percent of average; the Middle Fork is at 107 percent and the South Fork is also at 103 percent. Areas throughout the Swan Range and Kootenai basin show similar levels that are average or slightly above average.

“The Flathead’s got it pretty good right now,” Domonkos said. “Especially with respect to what’s going on in the rest of the state where the levels are 80 to 90 percent of average.”

Yet, in sharp contrast, the lower elevation in the city of Kalispell has received the lowest amount of total snowfall the last two winters since records were first kept in 1893, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

The weather station at Glacier Park International Airport reported 48.4 inches of overall snow the previous two winters between October and March. The winters of 1940-41, which held the previous low, produced 49.2 inches.

This year’s seasonal snowfall was 17.1 inches in Kalispell, which is almost 30 inches below average. The city’s average snowfall is 45.7 inches.

“It was a pretty gentle, benign winter. There wasn’t a whole lot going on, particularly in the valleys,” said Marty Whitmore, NWS meteorologist in Missoula. “Temperatures were on the mild side at times. The mountains themselves aren’t doing too bad. But it’s not really a huge year for snow in the mountains either.”

As one example, total snowfall accumulation at Whitefish Mountain Resort this season was tied for the second lowest since measurements were first kept in 2005. As of April 1, resort officials reported Big Mountain received 256 inches of snow this season, the same amount as in 2005. In 2010, the resort reported 170 inches. Last winter produced 301 inches on Big Mountain.

High temperatures appear to be the primary culprit.

Western Montana has not been hit with a full-blown arctic front in two years, Whitmore said. Cold fronts regularly bring blizzard conditions and long periods of cold temperatures that produce snowfall and maintain typical winter conditions.

The temperature in Missoula has not dropped below zero since Feb. 25, 2011, according to the NWS. This is the city’s second longest stretch on record, and will likely surpass the all-time mark because there has never been a subzero day in Missoula between April and October, the NWS noted.

Last month was also warmer and drier than usual in Kalispell. The average temperature in March was 36.2 degrees. The historical average is 35.4.

The temperature in Kalispell on April 1 reached 67 degrees, two degrees shy of the city’s record set in 1900.

Weather, like temperature and rainfall, will largely determine the sudden impact of runoff and what summer eventually looks like in terms of fire danger, according to both Domonkos and Whitmore.

Snow in the mountains typically begins melting in April at the lower elevations and consistent runoff occurs by May.

Water supply conditions will likely end up below average for most of the West’s rivers, according to the NWS. But early forecasts show spring and summer streamflow could remain normal in Western Montana. Flathead Lake is currently at 106 percent of the average streamflow, Domonkos said.

Other states are already bracing for the coming months and a possible sequel to last year’s historic fire season.

The Pacific Northwest could see below-normal temperatures but drier-than-normal conditions from now until July, according to the spring outlook report released recently by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The report adds that areas in the U.S. that are plagued by drought could experience above-average temperatures and little moisture relief.

Last year marked Montana’s worst wildfire season in more than 100 years. More than 2,100 fires scorched 1.14 million acres statewide, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. It was the most land consumed in a single year since the infamous Big Burn of 1910.

The U.S. as a whole endured one of the worst fire seasons on record in 2012. Wildfires burned more than 9 million acres nationwide, surpassing that mark for only the third time on record, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Only 2006 and 2007 had more acreage burned.

To read the NOAA Spring Outlook, visit http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/20130321_springoutlook.html. For updated local snowpack surveys, visit http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/

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