Weathering storms

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A classic George Ostrom column, from February, 1989...

The citizens of McGrath, Alaska were relieved last Friday when the temperature warmed to 59 below zero. With weather like that, anyone who goes outside turns into a solid citizen and those with a runny nose keep a stiff upper lip. The morning had started off at 75 below, which made national headlines. That reminded us the record for cold in North America was 80 below recorded at Prospect Creek, Alaska, January 23, 1971. That could be beaten this week after verification of new readings.

A review of local meteorological events might be of interest. The coldest temperature on record for the Valley is 38 below in January 1950 during a 14-day freezeout where the thermometer never got above zero. Not to worry! We’ve had at least seven winters in this century without one reading below zero and those balmy winters scattered from 1920 to 1953.

From studies of the weather bureau’s records, my nominee for “worst storm of the century” began at 10 a.m. on January 13, 1954. Weatherman Ray Hall was stranded at the airport for several days until his relief snowshoed in on the 16th, but the storm lasted until the 21st. We had 33 inches of snow that month and most of it fell during that storm, which saw winds hit 75 miles-per-hour. My dad was in Bigfork when the storm began and immediately headed for Kalispell, but only made it to the S-curve. He spent several days with a farm family there.

The swiftest wind in the valley was 86 miles-per-hour recorded in December 1956. The record winter month for precipitation was November of 1897, which had 5.1 inches, and of course the top year for precipitation was 1964, when the valley received liquid blessings of 22.36 inches. A lot of that fell in a couple of June days while even more hit the high country and that produced the never-to-be-forgotten flood.

There were not many weather stations in the mountains until recently, so we don’t know as much about rain, snow or temperature up there in the past hundred years. The coldest verified reading ever taken in the lower 48 states was 70 below at Rogers Pass, Montana on January 20, 1954 at an elevation of 5,470 feet.

While we’re talking about high elevation weather stations, the old one on Marias Summit used to get horrendous readings for cold, wind and snow. For example, that champion January storm of 1954 dumped 123 inches of white stuff up there, then to be sure we had enough, mother nature gave the pass another 46 inches during a four-day storm in March. For comparison, the annual average snowfall for the valley floor is around 66 inches, about the same as Albany, New York. Our record local snows fell in ’51-’52, for a total of 101.2 inches. The American place getting the most average annual snowfall is Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, with 113 inches. That beats even Juneau, Alaska’s 105.8.

To close this short meteorological review, the highest official temperature reading in the Valley was 105 degrees in August, 1961 at the airport. The old record was 101 in July of 1934. South Dakota and Oklahoma have highs of 120, but California holds the all-time U.S. record for hot … 134 degrees in Death Valley on July 10, 1913.

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