When singing "Folsom Prison Blues," Johnny Cash said he hadn’t seen the sun shine “since I don’t know when.” The same may be true for residents of Missoula, where the winter sun remains a distant memory.
Jeff Kitsmiller, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Missoula, said the city met the definition of a “sunny day” twice in December. Two sunny days are predicted in January while fog dominates the weather headlines.
But that’s winter living in a valley bottom.
“For the short term, we’ll get back into one of those fog-type patterns,” Kitsmiller said. “The cold keeps building up in the valley, and the fog gets deeper.”
Up until this past week, Missoula was recording one of its driest seasons on record, with less than 10 inches of moisture.
Totals for December are up a scant 0.3 of an inch above average, though the city likely will close out 2015 nearly 4 inches below normal for the year.
With El Nino taking shape off the Pacific Coast, Kitsmiller said, the rest of winter likely will be warm and dry.
“It looks like we’re seeing the beginning of that El Nino effect right now,” Kitsmiller said. “For the valleys, we’ll end up in a strong inversion instead of warming up. We’re forecasting a foggy, low-cloud scenario for the next week.”
Kitsmiller said El Nino will likely drive any Pacific moisture south – a good sign for drought-stricken California and the High Sierras, though it’s an unwelcome omen for Montana.
So far, however, snowpack west of the Continental Divide is on par with average. The Bitterroot Mountains are at 112 percent of normal, while the Upper Clark Fork is at 102 percent.
Kitsmiller said the Lower Clark Fork is at 91 percent while the Flathead stands at 87 percent.
“Warmer and dryer is what we usually get with El Nino,” Kitsmiller said. “Each time one of these (storms) comes off the Pacific, it goes south and leaves us in that dryer and warmer pattern. We’re seeing the beginning of that now.”
The immediate forecast includes subzero temperatures on New Year’s Day. A strong inversion will settle in, leaving the Missoula Valley locked in a freezing fog.
Temperatures will range between a high of 15 degrees and lows around zero.