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La Nina should offer relief, but no guarantees to stop Montana's drought

Oct drought maps.jpeg
Posted at 8:48 AM, Oct 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-12 17:46:10-04

MISSOULA — The seasons are changing, and so it's the weather in Western Montana, but will it be enough to make up for an extraordinarily dry 2021?

MTN News put that question to Ray Nickless, the hydrologist with the National Weather Service Office in Missoula, asking him how long it could take to recover from the current drought.

"Yeah, it's gonna take a real, you know, a good wet winter. Good snowpacks in the mountains and that type of come back," Nickless said. "And like I said, in Butte you've got to make up five inches in precip to get back to the normal range."

Forest floors in Western Montana have remained crispy and dry, even with rains since this summer's record heat

Nickless says Missoula and Kalispell are about 2" behind in year precipitation but some parts of Eastern Montana are as much as 6" or 7" behind. The latest maps show the difference from last fall, with the reds of "extreme" and "exceptional" drought covering much of the state.

"In Southwest Montana, we're in the extreme level. You can't go any worse than that, and there's sections of Eastern Montana, they're also in that extreme drought," Nickless pointed out.

That's not surprising considering the record-setting year of early, hot dry weather. With Nickless' long experience we wondered what he'd remember most about 2021.

Oct drought maps.jpeg
Drought maps show the comparison with last October and this year

"How hot the weather is getting and then also just the way we seem to be continuously every summer losing precipitation," Nickless reflected. "We just don't seem to get a lot of precipitation in the summer months. And then in eastern Montana the lack of moisture throughout the entire year."

Relief is setting up far out in the Pacific, with a La Nina pattern already starting.

"You know the cooling of the sea surface temperatures out in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean," Nickless observed. "We do see that occurring right now and that does have some good correlations for precipitation, especially in Western Montana."


Nickless says La Nina winters can be wet but don't come with a warranty for major snowfall and rain.

"You can have some really impressive winters where you get a good snowpack even in low elevations across all Montana in these La Nina years. But it's not as certain as maybe Western Montana, where we do have better correlations with, especially the snowpack."

Watch the full interview with Ray Nickless, the hydrologist with the National Weather Service Office in Missoula, below.

Full interview with NWS Hydrologist Ray Nickless on the winter weather outlook and drought