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El Niño's impacts on outdoor recreation and businesses in Montana

With less snow on the ground this year, many people are having to alter their plans in Western Montana.
Brett Svetlik
Posted at 11:57 AM, Dec 26, 2023

MISSOULA — Without a white Christmas this year and temperatures staying above freezing, many are wondering what’s behind this unusual winter weather.

KPAX's Chief Meteorologist Lewis Dortch has an answer — El Niño.

“Basically what El Niño is this, it’s a warming of the ocean waters, the pacific waters off the west coast of South America,” Dortch detailed.

Those Pacific Ocean origins are enough to impact the weather in Montana.

“There’s something called the pacific jet stream. It’s just a fast-moving column of air. It shifts a little bit further south with the warming water. As it does, active weather is gonna kick up along that jet stream. So basically, it moves more active weather to the southern half of the United States while the northern half of the United States which includes us here in Montana is a little drier and a little warmer on average,” Dortch explained.

El Niño
The waters warm in the Pacific Ocean near South America. The Pacific Jet Stream then pushes active precipitation towards the southern half of the United States. That leaves Montana and most of the Northwest drier and warmer.

With less snow on the ground, businesses and recreationists alike are having to alter their plans.

“We're less than a quarter of our normal trails that would be open in full season. And then just you know, it affects other parts of our business as well," Dog Creek Lodge and Nordic Center General Manager Brett Svetlik told MTN News. "So,the restaurant, the bar, the lodging, just people, you know, if they don't have anything to do out here, then they're not gonna be here spending time and money.”

Dog Creek sits 20 miles northwest of Whitefish in Olney. They have trails for cross-country skiing and fat biking plus a lodge and restaurant. While the valleys may be dry, Dog Creek has some snow on the ground.

"We are struggling to get people out here because they don't know we even have snow. I mean, when it's raining, people in the valley they aren't seeing the snow, they don't want to come out here," Svetlik said. "However, it’s a very limited amount of snow and that quiets traffic on the trails and at the lodge. “What would be one or two days to explore the trails is now you can do it in an hour,."

Brett Svetlik
Dog Creek Lodge and Nordic Center General Manager Brett Svetlik walks the grounds. They have around 7 kilometers of trails open but normally have 30 kilometers available to use.

Whether you’re a winter sports enthusiast or simply just love being outside in the snow, with a drier season this year comes a bit of frustration.

However, many are making the most of it like Ash Sward who started split boarding this year.

“Honestly, I am a little bummed that there’s not more snow, I would love more snow but at the end of the day I’m going to be outside whether it’s snowing, raining, [or] sunny. I’m going to be outside having a good time no matter what,” Sward detailed.

That’s why they’ve been heading out to Lolo Pass with their dog Sequoia where there is a bit of snow.

“I love hanging out in the woods, I have a dog and so it just kind of made sense for me to come out here and still get to enjoy the sport that I like," Sward explained.

Sward believes that the key to enjoying this season is a positive outlook.

“Ultimately I just feel like being able to recreate at all is a privilege so just being grateful that I have the ability to do that," Sward stated.

Ash Sward
Ash Sward switches their splitboard from uphill touring mode to downhill snowboarding mode.

Even though Dortch says El Niño’s dryness is sticking around until mid-2024, exactly what’s in store when it comes to weather is unknown.

“So, as of now, there’s not much relief in sight to get some good snowfall here. We’re in a very typical El Niño pattern for us this year. Now, this doesn’t mean that things can’t change as we go into January, February, March even.”

As always, we’ll have weather updates on the KPAX webpage and app.