The snowpack in the Bitterroot Mountains is headed in the wrong direction.
“It’s dropped slightly in the last week and a half due to the recent cold, dry spell,” said Bitterroot National Forest hydrologist Ed Snook.
As of now, no one is ready to predict whether that will change anytime soon.
Before Christmas, Snook said weather forecasters were predicting this part of Montana would see above average precipitation in January.
The forecast was revised on New Year’s Eve to suggest the month’s precipitation would be closer to normal.
“Right now there just aren’t that many clues for the Weather Service to make long-term predictions,” Snook said. “The El Nino situation is very neutral at this point. There is just no weather signal from the Northern Pacific Ocean to tell us which way it will go.”
The good news for the Bitterroot is that a wave of warmer than normal storms dropped enough rain in early December to push annual precipitation levels to above average for the year.
Those rains fell on soils that weren’t frozen in most places and the moisture stayed put in ground that had been bone dry.
“We shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Snook said. “As dry as it was in September and October, I really feel good about the precipitation that we received.”
That December precipitation continued long enough to turn to snow and create a good base for skiers and snowmobilers.
“That early wet snow is certainly important to the recreation industry,” he said. “They love to see that early snow come in with a lot of moisture. That’s exactly what Lost Trail saw. They got some excellent snow early on.”
Lately, Snook said that wet weather has been going elsewhere, which is odd considering that Seattle had a very wet December.
“They had 27 days with measurable precipitation in that month,” he said. “On seven of those days, they received more than a half inch of precipitation. Apparently, the weather patterns are not favoring the transport of that moisture here right now.”
In the mountains surrounding the Bitterroot Valley, most snow moisture reporting stations show between 80 to 85 percent of average.
The Bitterroot normally receives about 10 percent of its average annual precipitation in December and about the same percentage in January.
“It’s a big chunk,” Snook said. “If we fall too far behind, it will be hard to make it up.”
For those looking to venture into the backcountry, Snook said the snowpack is pretty stable at this point.
People wanting to keep track on any changes in the potential for avalanche can go to the www.MissoulaAvalanche.org
“The lesson for winter recreationists this year is get out early and often,” Snook said. “You can never be sure what it’s going to do later on in the season.”
Reach reporter Perry Backus at firstname.lastname@example.org.