Flathead weather records

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Snockered friends have called me in the middle of the night to settle bar bets about local weather. So! Every 20 years I run records from the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Starting in 1896, volunteers took Kalispell readings until the official manned office opened on May 3, 1899. The only weather information we have from earlier times is found in obscure notations by early explorers such as David Thompson.

Temperatures first: The hottest Flathead day was August 4th, 1961, when the thermometer in Kalispell hit 105 degrees. That seems relatively cool beside the state record, 117 degrees, recorded in Glendale and Medicine Lake.

The lowest local reading was taken before midnight on January 30, 1950, and lasted to the 31st. It was 38 BELOW ZERO. Statewide the lowest reading ever taken was 70 below the night of January 19th and 20th at Rogers Pass. My car froze to the ground in Havre. The Weather Bureau doesn’t ordinarily take official readings in the higher elevations where coldest temperatures occur. Imagine what we might get from a thermometer on top of Mount Cleveland? Anyway, that low reading was taken by a volunteer observer who couldn’t go to bed because he had to keep wood in his cabin stove. The actual reading was 69.7 but specialists in Washington D.C. examined the thermometer and adjusted the reading to 70. That remains the coldest official mark for the lower 48 states.

Montana high and low figures together reveal a 187 degree variance, a national record temperatures swing for ANY state in the union, and possibly for the world. Biggest one day state swing was in Browning in 1916 when the mercury fell from a comfortable 44 above to 56 below, another national record. Going up the scale, a chinook wind hitting the east side in 1980 took Great Falls from 32 below to 15 above in seven minutes.

Rainfall: The heaviest local rain in these last 100 plus years came down on the valley floor, June 29th, 1982 when 2.71 inches fell in 24 hours. There have been huge rains in the highlands that exceeded that by far. Extreme examples are the torrents along the Continental Divide triggering the devastating floods of 1964. Our wettest year in the valley was 1990 with a total precip of 23.93 inches. Remember, there are places in the world like Kawai that get that much in a day. Second wettest Flathead year was 1993 with 23.40 inches, followed by 1995 with 22.64. Total precip includes both snow and rain.

SNOW: Most that ever fell in 24 hours arrived December 21st and 22nd, 1951 when we got 15.4 inches, made worse by high winds which closed every road in the valley. My father, a skilled driver, started home to Kalispell from Bigfork when the storm began and he didn’t make it. Spent three days in a farm house at the S curve with his car buried. That record busting storm dropped a total of 17.2 inches on the valley floor in the two days it was here. Greatest officially measured snowfall out of one Montana storm was in January of 1972 when Marias Pass got 77.5 inches, including five feet in 24 hours, before the sky cleared.

WIND: The strongest one-minute blow, in the valley, was measured at 73 miles per hour on January 13th, 1950. Worst “gust” hit 80 miles per hour on August 20, 1990. It is fairly common to get wind gusts into the 90s on the other side of the divide and sometimes they knock trains off the track at Browning but the biggest blow was measured below the Rocky Mountain front on January 25, 1962 at 108 MPH. That snapped off over 60 power poles for the Sun River Co-op near Augusta. Here on the west side there are rare downslope tornado-like bursts which mow down a few acres of trees, but we don’t really get big winds except during election years.

The Flathead’s Weather Bureau station as we knew it for so long, closed in March 1996, so it’s a little tougher to dig out our weather history through the Missoula office. CLIP THIS COLUMN and file it.

As of now, October 2017, there may have been a couple of small changes in these records that I’m not aware of … but don’t call me at night from a bar.

G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.

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