The headline on the National Weather Service’s page for Missoula couldn’t be more straightforward: “HISTORIC WINTER STORM THIS WEEKEND.”
“Hazardous travel due to snow. Life-threatening backcountry conditions. Downed trees and power lines. Agricultural damage from record cold temperatures. Widespread valley snow,” the website states.
The winter storm warning stretches south from the Canadian border, through Seeley Lake, Missoula and the Rocky Mountain Front down to Butte. The warning is for Friday night through Sunday afternoon, and the weather service notes that “travel could be very difficult to impossible.”
Blizzard-like conditions are possible along the Rocky Mountain Front, with the website stating “This early-season winter storm and/or blizzard has the potential to set a new benchmark for snow accumulations, cold temperatures, and resulting impacts for parts of the Northern Rockies and the Rocky Mountain Front.”
That area could get up to 36 inches of snow in East Glacier, and up to 9 inches in West Glacier.
“We’re not sure people are prepared, and we want to get the word out,” said Joe Messina with the National Weather Service. “We could see 2 to 3 feet of snow in the high country, and if you’re out doing outdoor recreation in that country, this is a significant event.”
Between Saturday and Monday, anywhere from 1 to 3 inches of heavy, wet snow could blanket the greater Missoula area, Messina added.
“Snow in Missoula in September hasn’t happened since 1983,” he added. “The historic part of the warning is this is unprecedented this early in the year.”
If Missoula gets more than 1.5 inches of snow it would break the record for September, which was set in 1934.
It’s not just the precipitation that’s raising concerns. Along the Rocky Mountain Front, near-record cold temperatures could dip into the teens, with wind chills of zero to 15 below zero.
That makes Missoula’s anticipated dip into the mid-20s Sunday and Monday nights almost downright balmy in comparison. However, it’s wreaking havoc with farmers trying to prevent the loss of their crops.
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“I just heard from one farmer who has a pretty strict schedule, and he’s pulling in onions, winter squash, everything,” said Genevieve Jessop Marsh, the community outreach director at Garden City Harvest. “We have four farms, and they’re working their hearts out. Luckily it’s harvest season, so it’s good timing and no one is panicking.”
Sandy Perrin, a plant clinic horticulturalist with the Missoula County Extension Office, said most fruits like apples, pears and plums can handle temperatures down to 28 degrees without freezing and turning to mush. But with the forecast calling for lows around 24 degrees, “people would want to get out and pick that fruit before that happens,” she said.
“I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls about this,” Perrin said. “Everybody is gathering their vegetables immediately, like winter squash and pumpkins.”
Hardy plants like cabbage and kale can withstand the cold if they’re covered with frost cloths, but she recommends that potted flowers be brought inside.
Rain is expected to start falling after noon on Thursday, and last through Saturday, when high temperatures will start dropping into the 40s.
Messina said the average high temperature for this time of year is 67 degrees, with a low around 37 degrees.
“So this is a significant drop from the norms,” he said.
A low pressure system from the Northwest, which will sit over the region through the weekend, is to blame for the anticipated cold and snowy weather, according to Messina.
“One thing that makes this unique is it really doesn’t move much,” Messina said. “It waffles around the Northwest for a while and doesn’t kick out until Wednesday.”
Highs are expected to inch back into the 50s by next Wednesday, and climb into the 60s the following week.