A Real Montana Winter
December Was the Coldest Month in Bozmean Since February 1989
BY PAT HILL
Many long-time Gallatin County residents agree that this could be the first real winter this part of the state has seen in more than a decade.
The winter of 1996-97 was the last time southwest Montana got what could be called an old-fashioned Treasure State Winter, beginning in mid-October and not letting go until after Memorial Day. Halloween was Hell, November was frigid, and December saw extremely cold temps and deep snows in the region. The January thaw came right on time, and so did the Winter Fair chill. Snow continued to pile up into April.
The winter of '96-'97 broke records; those heavy snowfalls left skiers and snowboarders salivating, but also brought some bone-chilling temperatures. On Christmas morning, the temperature hovered around zero in Bozeman, and two feet of fresh snow buried cars and made streets impassable. When spring finally rolled around, flooding made Albertson's parking lot a lake and North Rouse Avenue a rolling stream. Many local rivers set new high water records, like the Yellowstone, which rose nearly three feet above flood stage, cresting a quarter-inch below 11 feet and making the river a half-mile wide in many Park County stretches for days. Hard-core kayakers and rafters were delighted, but property owners were not. Finally, after a miserable Memorial Day weekend (a not-so-unusual occurrence in southwest Montana), the weather turned “seasonal.”
La Niña, the term scientists use to describe a cooling trend in the waters of the southern Pacific Ocean which affects weather worldwide, in large part got the blame for the '96-'97 winter. La Niña and its counterpart, El Niño, which causes a warming of the southern ocean waters, began to be studied by scientists studying weather patterns in the 1980s. According to researchers, weather changes during La Niña seasons usually occur during the transition between fall and winter, essentially during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. During all the La Niña seasons researched, temperatures went from well-above-average to normal or below during the transition, accompanied by above-normal precipitation.
El Niño is exerting its influences this winter, but El Niño tends to leave Montana out of the loop, as the jet stream diverts storms to the south of here. Warmer temperatures and less precipitation usually occur in the Treasure State during an El Niño year. But the Gallatin Valley in particular hasn't been left out of any loops so far this winter.
After record-setting warmth for most of the month, the first significant snowfall in the Bozeman area occurred on Sept. 29. The cold weather held on through October, with several days of record low temperatures leading to crop losses in the valley; potato farmers were especially hard-hit. MSU-Bozeman recorded the coldest October since 1969.
The cold continued into November, and so did the snow: on Nov. 12, 24 inches of snow were recorded at MSU-Bozeman, toppling the old record (for any one-day snowfall) of 20 inches set on March 18, 1968. Though not one-day snowfall records, MSU observers have measured snow depths equal to or exceeding the Nov. 12 storm seven times, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Twenty nine inches were recorded on the ground on Feb. 21, 1942, as was 28 inches on Christmas Day of 1996.
As anyone who attended this winter's Christmas Stroll in Bozeman can attest, December began in a frigid manner and didn't really come out of the deep freeze until New Year's Eve. It was the coldest month recorded at MSU since February of 1989. Temperatures dropped to nearly 10 degrees below average for December on campus. There was more snow on the ground in Bozeman than there was in West Yellowstone.
The January thaw came right on time, maybe even a little early and lasting a little longer than usual, and saving many people from grappling with cabin fever. But February beckons, as does the Wild West Winterfest (which replaced the Winter Fair) on Feb. 12-14, and an almost sure bet of frigid cold during the three-day event at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. Southwest Montana isn't out of the woods yet when it comes to Old Man Winter.
We still have to get past Memorial Day weekend.