New Weather Station Fills Data Gap in Stryker Basin

The SNOTEL site replaces outdated manual equipment and provides data for water supply and weather forecasters, recreationists and the city of Whitefish

By Maggie Dresser
Larch blaze gold in the Stillwater State Forest on Nov. 5, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following decades of obtaining manual measurements of the snow depth in the Whitefish Range’s Stryker Basin, water supply and snow survey specialists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this fall installed an automated snow telemetry site (SNOTEL) near Olney in a partnership with the Stillwater State Forest.

The new site fills a weather data gap on Stryker Ridge, which sits at an elevation of 6,194 feet just northwest of Olney and will help officials with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provide more accurate water supply forecasts.

In addition to snow surveys and snowmelt runoff projections, the SNOTEL site will provide data for industries like agriculture, municipalities and avalanche forecasting.

“Our data gets used for many things,” NRCS hydrologist Mage Hultstrand said. “The National Weather Service uses it for forecasting and it’s used by recreationists and reservoir operators.”

The site location sits at a high elevation point in the Stryker Basin and snowmelt flows into the Swift Creek drainage – eventually landing in Whitefish Lake, which is the city’s drinking water source.

Since 1977, Stryker Basin measurements were obtained manually at three separate “snow courses,” which sit at low, mid and high elevations. Lacking the ease and convenience of an automated SNOTEL, which produces hourly data year-round, an employee from the Stillwater State Forest has historically journeyed into the remote location to take the snow depth and snow water equivalent measurements monthly from February to June.

Earlier this year, the Stillwater State Forest facilitated the SNOTEL permit process and helped NRCS staff install the instrument.

“It’s a high elevation point in the Swift Creek drainage, which drains into Whitefish Lake and joins the Stillwater and flows into the Flathead River,” Hulstrand said. “We didn’t have any automated monitoring in that area at all and having this site fills one of our data gaps. Now we aren’t just collecting information about the snowpack, but we get year-round precipitation and temperature data as well.”

The SNOTEL site adds to the region’s roster of weather stations, which officials have been adding to in northwest Montana on an almost annual basis.

In May, a Mesonet tower was added to Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ visitor center on the bison range, providing soil-moisture and snowpack data to inform rangeland management and climate plans.

Last fall, the Flathead Avalanche Center installed a weather station on Link Mountain in the Whitefish Range, filling a similar data gap in a popular area for winter recreationists.

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