2010 Feb. 4: MT Helena: State has ‘normal’ winter again: 11 air quality events

2010 Feb. 4: MT Helena: State has ‘normal’ winter again: 11 air quality events

By EVE BYRON Independent Record | Posted: Thursday, February 4, 2010 12:00 am


buy this photo Dylan Brown Independent Record An abundance of snow this year allows Doug, right, and Karen Booker to cross-country ski on Bill Roberts Golf Course Wednesday. ‘This is my second time out today,’ said Doug.

  • Much Snow
  • Much Snow
Consistent snowfall and cool temperatures have combined to make a real Montana winter this year in Helena compared to the past five Decembers and Januarys.
The highest and lowest temperatures in December 2009 and January 2010 were lower than they have been since 2005 — anywhere from 5 to 20 degrees cooler — and the average temperatures were up to 17 degrees lower.
This year also has seen the second-highest snowfall in that five-year period with almost 20 inches in 2009-10, following 21.6 inches last year. In 2005-06 and 2006-07, only around 2 inches of snow fell; in 2007-08, the Helena area got 12.7 inches.
Those conditions have created probably the biggest noticeable difference this year, with snow sticking around instead of melting down to brown ground in years past.
Jim Brusda with the National Weather Service in Great Falls noted that all of those readings are from the Helena Regional Airport, which typically has less snowfall than other sites in the area. He added that while this is one of the coolest and snowiest winters in recent years, Helena’s readings are right around the 30-year average.
“Your snowpack is generally about 80 percent in the Helena area, so it’s not far below normal, and the good news is we still have March and April to go, so one big snowstorm can push us right to where we want to be,” Brusda said. “What’s really helped in January is that last year you saw temperatures in the 50s with overnight lows in the 40s, and that’s why the snow didn’t stay on the ground.
“This year, the average low temperature was 11.8 degrees, and every night it went below freezing. So the snow basically compacted and froze, and that hard-packed snow will take even longer to melt.”
Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist with the state Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that statewide, the snowpack is about 73 percent of average and 80 percent of last year’s total at this time. But some places in the state are particularly low, like in the Bitterroot, where the snowpack is at 56 percent of average and 57 percent of last year.
“The area around Helena is actually doing better than a lot of areas,” Kaiser said. “The area that continues to do best is the central area, like the Smith, Judith and Musselshell basins. They’re at 100 percent of average, and 104 percent of last year.” 
The consistent cold temperatures made for good ice for anglers on Canyon Ferry Reservoir, noted Sharon Walker at the Silos RV Park and Store. She said the lake froze around Dec. 10 — a good two weeks earlier than last year — and the ice is in excellent condition.
“Except for a couple of weeks ago, we’ve been below 32 at night so the ice has continued to grow,” Walker said. “It’s about 20 inches where we are; I’m assuming it’s getting deeper down south toward the ponds because it’s shallower.”
Those temperatures also prompted inversions, where warm air trapped cool air into the Helena valleys and kept smoke from wood-burning stoves and vehicle exhaust close to the ground, causing more bad air quality days than in recent years.
“The air quality was pretty normal in November, but as we moved into December we had nine ‘watch’ events and four ‘poor’ air quality events,” said Jay Plant with the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Department. “In January, we finished with seven ‘poor’ events and eight ‘watch’ days.”
When the air quality is at the “watch” level, particulates in the air can bother people with respiratory ailments like asthma, Plant noted. When it drops to the “poor” level, the air is unhealthy for everyone. No burning of wood stoves or other incinerators is allowed and idling time for trains and other heavy equipment is restricted.
Up above the valley at the Great Divide Ski Area, owner Kevin Taylor is pleasantly surprised by the cold temperatures and snowfall. He regularly checks in with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which had predicted warmer and drier conditions for the region this year. That happened elsewhere in Montana, but not here.
“We got snow when we needed it, had those early cold snaps and it stayed cold enough for snowmaking at night,” Taylor said. “El Nino hit 30 miles west of us — Discovery (ski area) had a tough year. Whitefish did OK, but (ski areas near) Coeur d’Alene and Kellogg had a tough time.
He added with a grin: “We had three systems from Canada in a row, then got that big hit from the south last week and it dumped on us. We think it’s because we’re good people and God loves us.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com
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