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Despite December snowfall, January 2022 in central Montana looks a bit like the start of the severe drought year of 2021. As of Friday, the mountain snowpack in Smith, Judith and Musselshell Basin measured 82% of the normal. That number was closer to 92% this time last year, according to Ray Greely, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Great Falls.

“On the plains we’ve melted, but as far as mountain snowpack goes, it’s about 80% of normal,” Greely said.

So far this year, snowfall in Great Falls is on par with average.

“At this time we should have about 24 inches, with snowfall season starting July 1,” Greely said. “In Great Falls, we have 23.2 inches so far.”

Although official snowfall totals were not available for Lewistown, according to Greely, he felt the region should have received similar totals.

Greely said the region is experiencing a weak La Niña, which gives a slightly better chance for above-average rainfall. Although it is not the only factor that determines the weather, its presence is promising.

“Just having La Niña present gives us a 70% chance of above average precipitation and extreme cold, followed by a milder westerly flow,” Greely said.

Central Montana appears to be in a pattern of extreme cold, followed by warmer than average temperatures.

“We’re seeing well above and well below averages,” Greely said. “Wednesday overnight temperatures were in the mid-40s, which for January is quite remarkable.”

This cycle could continue in the near future.

“In the forecast, we’re looking at slightly above normal precipitation and temperatures, which tells us that we’re likely to stay in this pattern where we’ll have some snowfall and then it warms up,” Greely said. “Obviously we’re seeing warmer weather right now, but we still have an opportunity to make up for lost time.”

With most of central Montana still in extreme or exceptional drought, making up for lost time is something that needs to happen.

“In the long-range forecast, we have a better chance of above-average rainfall from January through March and a slightly better chance of below-normal temperatures,” Greely said. “If we get dry and we have a dry spring, there are big concerns for fires and drought.”

Greely points out that the drought’s return to normal is completely circumstantial.

“It’s hard to say exactly how much it will take to get us out of a severe drought,” Greely said. “When the snow falls, we need it to actually sink into the ground.”

The amount of moisture that enters the ground depends on several factors, including the amount of wind an area experiences, the rate at which the snow melts, and the depth of frost. Greely said the depth of frost fluctuates each year, and many places are currently more than a foot deep, making conditions more favorable for the ground to retain moisture.

“The frost in the soil helps preserve moisture more than warm soil normally would,” Greely said. “This year it (the frost) was probably a bit deeper than normal because when the cold air set in the snowpack was very low.”

Since depths fluctuate, Greely said the NWS doesn’t offer an “average” per se, but he compared that depth to that encountered in February 2019.

“That was the last time we had a foot depth,” Greely said.

Even with favorable frost depth, Greely said the region will need more moisture to emerge from the drought.

“Normal snow and spring rains will at least give it a shot, but it will take a long time to fully come out,” Greely said. “If we don’t get moisture, we will have problems in the next fire season and next year for agriculture.”

Warming is expected over the weekend, with the possibility of a system moving through the region on Tuesday or Wednesday and the potential for light snowfall.

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