Southwest Montana snowpack impacted by dry spell

According to Brian Domonkos, water specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), monthly precipitation in the Madison River Basin is currently below average, but an incoming storm to close out January has the potential to make up the deficit.

“As of [Jan. 28], our January precipitation was only 66 percent of the average,” Domokos explained. “To get back to average by Feb. 1, we need an additional 1.5 inches of precipitation—that is not too much, but a fair amount to get from one storm in the next few days.”

The water accumulation season started off “quite well,” according to Domokos, charging the soil with moisture even prior to the snowpack season.

“On [Oct. 1, 2013,] the snowpack was at 428 percent of average,” he said. “Then on Jan. 1 we were at 102 percent of average… now we are at 93 percent.”

The Madison River Basin stretches from Yellowstone National Park to Three Forks. On the Ruby Valley side, Domokos said the stream flow forecast as of Jan. 1 was 79 percent below average—a number he expects will continue to drop because of poor snowpack in the Gravelly and Snowcrest mountain ranges.

“Some of the sites we use to summarize the entire Ruby Basin—like Twin Bridges—are actually doing well so some of the data is conflicting,” he said.

According to Domokos, the snowpack in the Tobacco Root Mountains is at 108 percent of average.

Domokos said the snowpack, which affects stream and river flow, did not melt during the warm temperatures the county experienced in early January.

“The warmth has not impacted the snowpack,” Domokos said. “The dry spell, though, really has.”

A below average snowpack can mean a dry fire season, according to Domokos, but it is too early in the year to predict summer conditions because there are still many months of snowpack accumulation left.

For recreationists concerned with how the unseasonably warm temperatures in southwest Montana have impacted the current backcountry avalanche conditions, Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC), said the snowpack is not any more stable than it was before.

“All that nice, sunny, above normal temperatures did not do anything to help the weak snow at the base of the pack,” Chabot said. “The bonus to the weather we have been having is that we have finally stopped loading the snowpack—it got a breather but the facets are not getting stronger because of that.”

According to Chabot, another snowstorm will bring a spike in avalanche danger again because the top layer of the snow will be weak, sugary and faceted.

“Then when that gets buried by the snow we have conditions that mean a high risk for avalanches.”

Chabot said the avalanche risk should not stop experienced recreationists from enjoying the backcountry, but that everyone should proceed with caution.

“If there is not a lot of new snow, people should be okay,” Chabot said. “But the number one thing people need to be on the lookout for are any recent avalanches in the area.”

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