MISSOULA — The return to snowy, cold weather might have you complaining a little bit about winter but it's come just in time to help Montana's dwindling snowpack.
Last Monday at Lolo Pass it felt more like the first of April than the middle of winter. While there was a fair snowpack at the summit, the forest was already melted off, and dropping down Lolo Creek the snow vanished quickly. That's disappointing, considering the amount of snow we received in October and November, hitting a prolonged dry spell in December and January.
"No snow to speak of. We got a few inches here and there. But those are typically our snowier months. The mountains got hit a little bit better, but still they were tailing off too," said National Weather Service Hydrologist Ray Nickless. "And you know the overall snowpack, when I looked at it just the other day was, you know we're in the in the 80s, percentage-wise. Like 80-some percent of normal.
Look at the difference in seven days. Now, the higher terrain is buried under a heavy dump of snow. And the snow -- and cold -- forecast now is only going to help rebuild that early season snowpack. Nickless says that should save us from having low streamflows this summer.
“We gotta keep continuing to pick up snowstorms and add moisture as we go through February and March, otherwise we will be struggling this summer," Nickless told MTN News.
It's not that unusual to get a heavy dump of snow in February. You remember in 2014 and again in 2019 when it started snowing in February and lasted for several weeks. But the snow we get this time of the year is critical to building that water supply for next summer.
That's because the late winter and early spring storms are often wetter, and the constant freeze-thaw cycle helps build the actual snowpack that lasts for months.
“It continues into February and continues into March and in some of the higher spots, even into the first part of April. So yeah, that accumulation period, we still have two months of good accumulation left," Nickless said. "Let's just hope that you know the forecasts that we're projecting here going into the future come to play.”
Nickless says even in a year with a La Nina weather pattern it's not unusual to have wide variations in temperature and precipitation, noting that indicator is lasting over many months.