Saturday, April 13, 2024

Record-low snowpack worries researches at University of Montana

by UM News Service
| March 27, 2024 12:00 AM

MISSOULA – Snowpack this winter continues to be at an all-time low across several river basins in western Montana, indicating that this year could see water shortages, according to recent projections from the Montana Climate Office.

The climate office is based at the University of Montana in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. It produces daily summaries of drought conditions for the Upper Missouri River Basin (UMRB), Washington, Oregon and Idaho to help state and local governments make timely and informed decisions about drought.

“At this point in the season, we don’t anticipate a recovery in many locations,” said Kyle Bocinsky, the office's director of climate extension. “The public should know that it really is not looking good for our water supply going into the spring and summer.”

He said this is especially true in basins experiencing the most significant snowpack deficits, including the Blackfoot, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead, and Sun and Smith River basins.

Based on the current projections, Bocinsky said, there will be less water for agriculture and recreation, with bad news as well for fisheries. He anticipates that there will be earlier closures for rafting and fishing and limitations for anglers such as hoot-owl restrictions.

Data on snowpack conditions are included as part of the Upper Missouri River Basin Drought Indicators interactive dashboard, available at The dashboard presents data from the SNOTEL snowpack monitoring network, which is composed of over 900 automated monitoring sites located in high-elevation mountain watersheds across the western U.S.

For each SNOTEL station in the Upper Missouri River Basin the climate office derived the likely trajectory of future snowpack changes through the end of the season in order to provide information on water supply going into the spring and summer. Several SNOTEL stations in the northern Rockies continue to show near or below record-low snowpack.

Water held in snowpack is a crucial resource for hydrological systems like streams and rivers, and this year’s deficits could lead to water shortages for various users at lower elevations. According to Montana Climate Office Assistant State Climatologist Zachary Hoylman, streamflow and soil moisture are extremely important for Montana’s ecosystem and economy, and snowpack is the biggest source for both.

The  drought indicators dashboard was created to help inform the Montana Drought and Water Supply Monitoring Committee on what to expect in the coming warmer months. Hoylman said among scientists who study snow there tends to be a sentiment that “there’s always a chance,” suggesting that things can recover. Oftentimes, forecasts won’t be taken seriously until closer to the end of the winter season, which in Montana is roughly April 15. But he said this wait-and-see approach can be harmful, particularly in low snow years.

He said tools such as the dashboard can help estimate how much water conservation is needed to sustain water throughout the year. Providing real-time data to drought monitoring committees can help give early warnings to communities so that they can adapt accordingly. With a more proactive approach, agricultural producers, land managers and watershed alliances can start preparing for potential drought scenarios.

“The snow story is complicated, and there are a lot of pieces to it,” Hoylman said. “We’re trying to effectively tie everything together to provide accurate assessments of how much moisture there is in the snowpack across all elevations.”

Both Hoylman and Bocinsky said that at this point it’s fairly certain 2024 will be the lowest or near lowest snowpack seen to date for some critical Montana watersheds. With three major American river headwaters here in Montana, this year’s dismal winter and subsequent low snowpack also could send ripple effects to communities downstream.

Bocinsky said now is the time to start making a plan of action. Using the dashboard, policymakers and water managers can start to look at other low snowpack years, what the impacts were and how they might strategize for mitigating those impacts. For individuals who would like to monitor the situation themselves, the drought dashboard is available for the most up-to-date conditions.

MCO researchers plan to write a paper codifying their work with the data. The paper will explain the methods, the utility of those methods in snow forecasting and how the model can also forecast streamflow in different watersheds come warmer months. They anticipate publication by next winter and hope the paper will help provide more accurate predictions for environmental conditions linked to snowpack in Montana.