Measuring Winter

Taking stock of Northwest Montana’s harsh winter and latest storm in numbers

By Myers Reece
Ice forms on car windows near downtown Kalispell. Beacon File Photo

Yet another major February storm hit Northwest Montana last week, first blanketing the region with snow and then breaking all-time records for low temperatures, causing residents to hunker down inside with their thermostats set to high.

The hardest-hit area has been the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where relentless snow and winds have crippled daily life. The tribal government declared a state of emergency, and an incident command post was established to distribute food, blankets and firewood to residents. Nearly six feet of snow has fallen there since Feb. 1.

While the Blackfeet Reservation was grappling with its urgent situation, the Flathead Valley was dealing with weather that was more unpleasant and inconvenient than dire, but frigid and disruptive nonetheless.

A storm moved into the region Feb. 17-18, dropping 18 inches of snow in a 24-hour period in Marion and Essex, and 22 inches west of Trout Creek. Libby had 15 inches in 24 hours, while a National Weather Service spotter reported 12.1 inches in a 14-hour period in Kalispell.

Once the snow stopped, freezing temperatures moved in, including an all-time Kalispell record of minus 16 degrees on Feb. 20. Kalispell’s previous record for Feb. 20 was 13 below in 1936. Polebridge’s temperature that same day was minus 42. All those temperatures were without wind chill.

“It was a pretty severe storm: snow and blowing snow and cold after that,” said Ray Nickless, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula.

The region’s outlook for this week is intermittent snow without an immediate drying pattern in sight, with a storm system potentially developing over the weekend, although Nickless said on Feb. 26 it didn’t appear to be as severe as recent storms.

Below are a handful of indicators that help measure the impact of the most recent storm and cold snap, including temperatures and snow accumulations, along with overall winter numbers and all-time records.

Storm by the Numbers

22 — inches of snowfall near Trout Creek in a 24-hour period on Feb. 17-18

18 — inches of snowfall at Essex and Marion in a 24-hour period on Feb. 17-18

26 — inches of snowfall at Lookout Pass in a 24-hour period on Feb. 17-18

42 — degrees below zero recorded in Polebridge without wind chill on Feb. 20

16 — degrees below zero recorded in Kalispell without wind chill on Feb. 20, breaking the previous Feb. 20 record of minus 13 set in 1936

157 — percent of normal snowpack in the Flathead basin following recent storm, far exceeding water levels in states elsewhere in the West

Energy by the Numbers

27,777 — natural gas peak demand in million cubic feet among NorthWestern Energy customers in the Flathead on Feb. 19

18,553 — natural gas average daily demand in million cubic feet among NorthWestern’s Flathead customers from Nov. 1, 2017 to Feb. 21, 2018

32,885 — natural gas historical peak demand in million cubic feet among NorthWestern’s Flathead customers, reached on Dec. 8, 2013

323 — peak load in megawatts of electricity on Flathead Electric Cooperative’s system on Feb. 20

190-200 — average peak load in megawatts on FEC system on mild summer days

348 — all-time peak load in megawatts on FEC system, reached on Feb. 16, 2014

16,300 — number of households in Montana, as of Feb. 15, approved for federally funded assistance to help pay heating bills through the Low Income Energy Assistance program, 750 more than in 2017

All-time Winter Records

38 — degrees below zero of Kalispell’s lowest-ever temperature, recorded in January 1950

70 — degrees below zero of Montana lowest-ever temperature without wind chill, recorded at Rogers Pass on Jan. 20, 1954

117 — degrees above zero of Montana’s highest-ever temperature, recorded at Medicine Lake on July 5, 1937

187 — degrees between Montana’s highest- and lowest-ever temperature, the most extreme temperature range of any U.S. state

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