POLSON – It drizzled off and on here Friday, and if you ignore the fact that it’s February and any moisture really should be arriving in the form of snow, the dreary weather was a brief bit of good news.
Lake County is, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, at the heart of extreme drought conditions in western Montana.
Those conditions bleed south and east into Missoula County, west into Sanders County and north into Flathead County, but blanket all but the easternmost sliver of Lake County.
Outside of California and Nevada, our little corner of the country is the only place in the U.S. with extreme or exceptional drought conditions right now.
If it persists, of course, it can have ramifications for everyone and everything from farmers to fish to forest fires.
Severe drought conditions spread out over a wider portion of western Montana, and cover all or parts of those four counties plus nine more, including Ravalli, Granite, Lincoln and Mineral. Aside from much of southwest Montana, where it’s just “abnormally dry,” what’s left of western Montana is in a moderate drought.
Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, can point out a couple of interesting side facts to go along with the moderate to extreme drought conditions.
One is that most of Montana is currently drought-free – more than 70 percent of the state, in fact.
“It’s that western quarter of the state that’s really been in a dry pocket,” Fuchs says.
The other is that, one year ago, 100 percent of Montana was drought-free at this point in February.
Blame El Nino, says Genki Kino, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula.
“El Nino typically means warmer and drier weather in western Montana,” Kino says. “It’s expected to persist at least through April.”
Predictions beyond that get trickier, according to Kino, but the best chance for the drought to lessen may rest on how wet the weather is come late spring.
“The climate seems to be transitioning,” Kino says. “El Nino is weakening, and by summer could be in a neutral state. With El Nino decreasing in strength, things could change come May and June. Hopefully we’ll get more moisture by then.”
Meantime, even though most of eastern Montana is drought-free, conditions have worsened in southeastern Montana. A relatively small area classified as abnormally dry in November has expanded from portions of eight counties to 15, and some areas in and around the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations have been reclassified and are now in a moderate drought.
Fuchs says a number of factors are used to determine droughts, and their severity, from the moisture level in soils to the amount of water in snowpacks.
Drought conditions in western Montana “are a combination of what you haven’t seen this winter,” Fuchs says. “Some of it is a lack of snowfall. Some if it is carryover from the dryness you had in the fall of 2015.”
Western Montana began sliding into abnormally dry conditions last May, and by June 2, most of the region was classified that way.
Within two weeks of that, much of northwest Montana was in a moderate drought. By June 23 it had spread across most of western Montana, and conditions rapidly worsened from there.
Much of the region was in severe drought by the end of June, and by July 7, extreme drought conditions existed over much the area between Deer Lodge and Libby.
The red color the National Drought Mitigation Center uses on maps to show where extreme drought conditions exist have persisted on a weekly basis in parts of northwest and north-central Montana for seven solid months now.
Fuchs notes that while drought conditions can change rapidly in the summer, it’s unusual for them to change quickly in the winter.
“Typically, drought conditions move much slower, whether they’re developing or improving, in the winter,” he says.
So dust off the “we-need-it” saying about rain and hope you get to use it this spring.
Because we need it.