What about the weather?

Who knows whether or not we should expect heavy snow and cold

By Tracy McNew


Following a not-so-white Christmas, Turner Mountain had to delay their opening while waiting for more snow to fall. Northwest Montanans have skated by this year (not literally) with little in the way of ice or the white fluffy stuff that area skiers so enjoy. Aside from our surprise early winter storm in October, it has been a mild winter so far.

Whether this situation  makes them happy or sad, nearly everyone is wondering whether or not more robust winter weather will soon arrive. As of Sunday, Jan. 5, our ten-day forecast, according to weather.com, calls for seven days of snow showers beginning on Thursday, Jan. 9. Just how reliable this forecast is, remains to be determined.

According to SciJinks.gov, a five-day forecast predicts weather accurately about 90% of the time, at seven-days, accuracy drops to 70%, and at ten-days or longer, forecasts are only right about half of the time. A 50/50 chance is less than ideal as far as odds go which leads to the question, why is weather so hard to predict?

With significant advances in technology, the science of meteorology and forecasting the weather have gained a lot of ground over the years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and our National Weather Service (NWS) spend millions of dollars each year on predicting the weather. This, of course, is useful for us on a daily basis as we decide what to wear or drive. On a larger scale, improved forecasting could save billions of dollars and hundreds of lives every year. Early and accurate predications could allow time for much-needed preparations and evacuations before severe weather events occur.

As of Oct. 8, 2019, NOAA had reported ten weather and climate disasters in the U.S. with losses in excess of $1 billion each. NWS reported nearly 400 weather-related fatalities in 2018. 2019 statistics are not yet available.

As you can see, weather is snow joke (but it’s important to have a sense of humor anyway) and, predicting it is not easy or cheap. NOAA and NWS rely on three different types of monitoring satellites to help. These include satellites in deep space, polar-orbiting satellites, and geostationary satellites used for short-term and long-term monitoring and forecasting.

Forecasting short-term weather is easier because it relies more on temperature, air pressure, cloud patterns, precipitation, wind, and moisture levels which can all be accurately measured and modeled.

Long-term weather forecasting must also take into account  climate, geography and topography, earth’s emitted radiation, ground and sea temperatures, air pressure and ocean currents, sea ice  and even atmospheric pollution, so it is much more difficult to reliably predict all of the varied interactions.

Even though it is difficult and  potentially unreliable, The National Weather Service and others continue to issue long-range weather forecasts. For this winter (Dec., Jan., and Feb.), the NWS’s weather outlook for Montana calls for “Above Normal Temperatures and Above Normal Precipitation.” Although that doesn’t sound totally on target, upon closer inspection, their maps do show our area of Northwestern Montana in the zone that is not likely to be either  drier or wetter than normal.

Their key points go on to detail that the predictions are based on a neutral El Nino which is expected to bring these conditions, but “Other factors could overtake the influence of the neutral El Nino this winter and possibly bring variability to this outlook, especially for precipitation.”

Since we might be expecting warmer temperatures than usual and average amounts of precipitation, it’s a good idea to know what our averages are. According to usclimatedata.com, Libby’s average high in January is 33 with a low of 21, we get an average of 10 inches of snow fall, and 1.77 inches of precipitation. In February, we average a high of 41, a low of 22, seven inches of snow, and 1.26 inches of precipitation are average.

AccuWeather online shows that for Libby, temperatures during the month of December were almost entirely above the average highs and average lows expected for our area. The only significant exception was on Dec. 1, when we had a high of 25° F and a low of 10° F. The expected would have been 35 and 24. That was the only day in December that our temperature didn’t get above 30° F, and we also had eight days during the month with high temperatures above 40° F. Records of precipitation were not available.

A local weather enthusiast’s site, simonsweather.org, also published a winter outlook but his was specifically for our region of Northwest Montana. Written on Nov. 29, he said, “This year is proving to be more complicated than in years past as overall there is no clear signal one way or another to determine with high confidence how this winter will play out.”

Like the National Weather Service, Simon’s outlook further discussed factors contributing to his  determination including an El Nino Southern Oscillation, Pacific North American set up, and Madden Julian Oscillations.

Giving more local detail, Simon also discussed regional factors that could affect our winter weather outlook including, “the ‘blob’ of unusually warm water that is currently located some 1,500 miles west of the British Columbia coastline.” He also discussed in detail, the Eastern Pacific upper level ridge, and the Hudson Bay low which impact our local weather. Explanation of these factors cannot be provided as it would require understanding, but not to worry, he did summarize. “I believe in a nutshell that our region will see below average temperatures (colder than normal) with near to above normal precipitation (mix of rain and snow on valley floors with slightly better odds for more snow than rain in the valleys.)”

We are now just over a month into the winter season with

nearly two months left to go, so we’ll refrain from judgements about whose predictions are  most accurate for now.

Of note, Simon ended his winter weather prediction with this important reminder, “Bottom line is, this is Montana so be prepared for anything!”

For those still awaiting local ski and snowboard opportunities, keep an eye on Turner’s website, (skiturner.com) and their Facebook page for updates on opening day.

For ice skaters and fisherman, FWP recommends waiting for clear, hard ice that is at least four inches thick before venturing out alone and ice that is five inches thick for venturing out in small groups.

Top: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA)  map predicting precipitation for the U.S. this winter. Northwest Montana is not anticipated to have above or below average precipitation.


Middle: NOAA’s map predicting temperature this winter. Northwest Montana is expected to be slightly warmer than average. 


Bottom: Montana FWP’s ice safety guidelines.