Montana Winters Aren't for Wimps
Winter blankets the Gallatin River headwaters. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)
It seems that this year much of Montana is experiencing a tough winter, but it’s actually not. We are just getting back to winter after last year’s weird spell. Temperature readings haven’t gone wild – yet. No reporting stations have recorded 50 below or colder, and the coldest known low during January’s first week was 46 below Fahrenheit. Twenty to 30 below was more prevalent in the past.
Stories abound about conditions changing quickly and in a pronounced way. Montana holds the national record for cold with a 70-degrees-below-zero reading near Helena. And if you research the recorded low for most Montana towns on any given day from early November through March, you will see they range from minus 10 to minus 50 or colder. Archives of every Montana newspaper hold facts that give credibility to our reputation as a place where winter isn’t wimpy!
Frigid times can come slowly while at other times the transition is abrupt. Take a look back to 1989: January witnessed a disastrous weeklong warm spell that tricked some trees into believing spring had arrived. Unsuspecting vegetation prepared to show new growth until suddenly winter reclaimed its place in a matter of hours with a vengeance. Much plant life was killed. An Arctic air mass invaded the Northern Rockies bringing record cold temperatures and extreme wind chills. Ahead of the front, on Jan. 30, downslope winds gusted to 100 mph at Shelby, 102 mph at Browning and 124 mph at Choteau. Twelve empty railroad cars were blown over in Shelby. Elsewhere, roofs were ripped off houses, mobile homes torn apart and trees and power lines downed.
Then on Jan. 31, temperatures plummeted. In Helena, it remained colder than minus 20 for a week, including a low of minus 33. Wind chills dropped to minus 75. At Wisdom the mercury sunk to minus 52. As the cold hit Great Falls, the temperature went from 54 degrees above zero to minus 23 (a 67-degree change) and did not rise to above minus 20 until Feb. 4. This included temperatures of minus 35 and minus 33.
Another abrupt renewal of winter occurred on Dec. 24, 1924. The temperature at Fairfield near Great Falls dropped from a balmy 63 at noon to a bone chilling minus 21 by midnight. This 84-degree difference still stands as the greatest 12-hour temperature change ever recorded in the United States. At another time, Browning witnessed a change of 100 degrees in 18 hours – a Chinook wind had warmed the January temperature to a spring-like 44 degrees. A traveling arctic invasion took the reading to 56 below zero. This is the U.S. and also world record for the greatest temperature drop in 24 hours.
Other stories of long, tough, frigid seasons abound, such as the winter of 1936. January was colder than usual. In February, the mean temperature from 111 reporting stations was 22.4 degrees colder than normal. Temperatures fell on Jan. 13 to minus 53 at Summit (west of the Continental Divide) and on the Jan. 15 to minus 57 at Cascade (southwest of Great Falls) and minus 59 at Frazer and Glasgow. While March saw an overall average temperature, the month ended with readings well below zero. On March 30, Red Lodge was at minus 20, Chessman Reservoir was at minus 28 and Summit’s low was minus 29. Winter’s grip held through early April with temperatures bottoming out at minus 28 at Chessman Reservoir on April 1. During that winter, many areas of Montana east of the mountains recorded below zero readings for 57 days straight. Ten below was considered to be a warm day, and the wind chill often exceeded minus 100.
In 1965, a Terry woman reported to the Miles City Star that it had been minus 20 at her place on Nov. 20 and minus 20 on March 20 “and darned few days did the temperature rise above 20 below in-between” – a total period of four months or 123 days. Pat Gudmundson, writing in a Miles City Star publication, related that the 1977-78 cold season started with heavy November snows and below-normal temperatures that continued through each month. A February blizzard isolated many southeastern towns when 15- to 20-foot drifts blocked roads and buried houses up to their rooftops. Snowplow crews struggled to open roads only to be hit by another storm.
To most folks who experienced it, the winter of 1919-20 was considered severe because it lasted from early October until May. But 1886-87 is thought to be the worst because of its impact on the cattle industry. This was the winter Charlie Russell so poignantly titled his sketch “Waiting for a Chinook or The Last of the 5,000 Brand,” which started his rise to fame. After an extremely dry summer and fall, grass was scarce. Arctic storms hit in November and December followed by short thaws. By January, a hard icy crust covered what little vegetation there was, making it impossible for animals to get at it. Deep snow and a fierce minus-30 to minus-40 cold returned and continued unabated until early March. It was the end of an era, 50 to 95 percent of the great cattle herds were lost, and the days of unmanaged, free-roaming grazing were over.
Rick and Susie Graetz | Department of Geography | University of Montana