Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Waiting for the Sun

Heart-leafed arnica waiting to open its petals
Drip, drip, drip.

It's drippy season in Montana. Our wildflowers have been progressing along okay, but give 'em a couple of hot and sunny days and we'll see fireworks in the forests. Little understory plants, like this heart-leafed arnica, are just waiting for a warm boost to spread out in the sunshine - as are the rest of us.

An old friend, a former fire lookout in Glacier, sends us updates on the Tres Lagunas Fire, down in New Mexico where she's stationed now. More than 8,500 acres already, and she says the streams have run dry.

Meanwhile here in northwestern Montana, we're in the middle of our wettest season. The state averages just over 15" of precipitation each year (years 1895-2012), good for the sixth-driest state in the U.S. But you would never guess that in spring. May, June and July account for almost one-half of our annual precipitation total when you average across the whole state, and more than one-third of Kalispell's annual precipitation.

Kalispell is easily the wettest "city" (if you can call it that), averaging 17.21" of precipitation annually. June tops the charts at 2.3" on average. And on average, all of this rain/snow is spread out over 132 days, but with only 23 thunderstorm days. In other words, gray drizzle dominates 109 wet days.

Drip, drip, drip.

It's interesting that our paucity of spring thunderstorms doesn't preclude tornadoes. During the years 1950-2011, the date with the highest number of reported tornadoes is June 21st. Nineteen were reported on that date in Montana during those years, but the vast majority were over in eastern Montana, with only four of the reports coming from Kalispell. Montana only averages 5.4 tornadoes per year, good for 31st place in the U.S.
Abundant Montana wheat in 1927
"Prosperous farmers with women and children stand in abundant wheat field. Molt, Montana. 1927."
(Photographer: Mildred Romundstad Madson)
I also find it interesting that Montana's wettest and driest years were only a few years apart. Since 1895, our wettest year was 1927, when our average precipitation was 21.73". That record was followed four years later when the average precipitation was only 9.97" in our driest year, 1931 - prelude to the Dust Bowl.

That amount was topped in a few hours, 49 years ago, starting on June 7th and ending on the 8th, in 1964. More than 11" of rain fell in just 30 hours in the mountains between Essex and Heart Butte, bleeding off a record snowpack and leading to a "Flood of the Century" event. Twenty miles of Highway 2 washed away. On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, 265 homes were destroyed and 30 people perished.

That was one for the record books, and remembering it makes this June seem so much more bearable in northwestern Montana. To date, we have accumulated 0.36" of precipitation this month, and 6.97" this year. That means that we can expect roughly 2" more rain in the next 26 days. Oh boy.

Drip, drip, drip...