WEST GLACIER — Every day, at about 4 p.m., someone from Glacier National Park goes outside and checks the weather.
A weather station was erected in West Glacier in 1913, and the National Weather Service has daily weather data — including high and low temperatures and precipitation accumulation — going back to 1920. Even when wildfires have forced the park evacuations or government shutdowns have kept federal workers locked out of their jobs, someone has gathered the data.
On Oct. 9, a day with fresh snow and sunny skies, the National Weather Service thanked Glacier Park employees with a commemorative plaque for more than century of work observing the weather. Superintendent Jeff Mow and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were on hand for a small ceremony near park headquarters.
The West Glacier weather station is one of thousands of such sites around the country. The National Weather Service (NWS) in Missoula oversees about 60 weather-monitoring sites in western Montana and northern Idaho. The stations usually include thermometers to note the high and low temperatures, as well as two types of precipitation gauges: an automatic one that can digitally report rain and snow amounts back to Missoula and a manual one that offers more exact measurements. The sites are maintained by the NWS — an employee from Missoula comes out twice a year to make sure the equipment is in working order — but are observed by volunteers. In the case of the West Glacier site, that means GNP employees.
Over the years, dozens of weather stations have been scattered across the region. NWS has data from the Kalispell station dating back to 1896 and the Missoula one going back to 1893. However, few stations have been as consistent as the one on the west side of Glacier.
The first weather station in the area was located at Fish Creek and built in 1913. The site was later moved adjacent to the park’s administrative building along the Middle Fork Flathead River. In the 1960s, it was moved to its present location near the fire cache, where the park’s firefighting operations are based. Although the equipment was moved around, it was still considered the same site because it has always been within five miles of the original location and within 100 feet of the original elevation.
In the 1990s, the original mercury thermometers were replaced with a digital system that can keep up to 30 days of high and low temperature data (the old thermometers are kept as a backup). The digital system has made it easier to record data if someone misses a day, but generally, a park employee is checking the thermometer and precipitation gauge daily — even when weather, wildfires and government shutdowns make it a challenge.
When a weather station hits a century of service, the NWS likes to honor the people who monitor it with an award. But that didn’t happen with the West Glacier site until this year because of a significant gap in the data, according to meteorologist Corby Dickerson.
On Aug. 11, 2018, West Glacier recorded its hottest air temperature on record at 100 degrees — or so meteorologists thought. Not long after, a weather observer and Glacier Park lover from the East Coast emailed Dickerson that he had seen a report that noted West Glacier once hit 100 degrees back in the 1930s. Dickerson tracked down the report and, sure enough, West Glacier hit the century mark at least once before. Upon further review, Dickerson realized that the NWS’ West Glacier weather data was only accessible back to 1948 — the same year the local U.S. Post Office dropped the community’s historic name of Belton (an old railroad name that can still be found on the side of the depot) and started using the name West Glacier.
Dickerson said the lack of online data could be traced back to the early 2000s when contractors for the NWS were uploading historical weather data online. Apparently, the person uploading the West Glacier information got to 1948 and thought Belton was an entirely different weather station, so the information was never put online, meaning meteorologists like Dickerson could not access the entire data set.
“The name change threw everything off with our historic records,” Dickerson said.
Realizing that nearly 40 years of weather data was missing, Dickerson dug into the NWS archives and reached out to Glacier Park’s museum. Both depositories had the West Glacier data dating back to 1920. Dickerson said he’s still looking for data from 1913 to 1920.
“It could be sitting in an old box somewhere or it could be lost forever — we don’t know,” he said.
When Dickerson saw that the West Glacier station had been producing weather data for 106 years, he realized that NWS owed the park an award.
During the short presentation on Oct. 9, Bruce Bauck, the meteorologist in charge of the Missoula NWS office, said local weather stations like the one in West Glacier are important to understanding trends, and the data wouldn’t be available without volunteer observers.
“You don’t measure climate change through a single storm,” he said. “It’s done by gathering years’ worth of data.”