The big dig: Blizzard sets Missoula snowfall record; February third coldest

Residents on the south side of Missoula catch up on their shoveling between rounds of wind and snow. The storm’s official tally in Missoula was 11.3 inches. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The strongest storm of the winter season blew through western Montana on Monday, leaving residents reaching for their shovels early Tuesday.

The big dig began as students in several school districts from Missoula to Hamilton got a rare snow day. Some flights to and from Missoula International Airport were canceled or delayed, and several major routes across the region were closed.

By Tuesday morning, the official storm count at the Missoula airport stood at 11.3 inches, according to Dave Nobel, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Missoula.

Drift heights from the blizzard exceeded that in many areas.

“We did have a daily record in Missoula with 8.6 inches of snow,” Nobel said. “The highest snowfall for the 25th was 8 inches back in 1917. We’ve heard reports of 6 to 10 inches in Seeley Lake and near a foot in Alberton.”

The storm’s big winner was south in the Bitterroot Valley, where Hamilton declared a snow emergency. Stevensville recorded roughly 26 inches of snow, Nobel said.

“We’ve received reports of up to two feet of snow in the Bitterroot Valley, and even some isolated reports of three feet,” he said. “The highest amount that’s been reported to us is 26 inches at Stevensville. It’s certainly nearing the record for a three-day snowfall there.”

With school cancelled in Missoula, students took time for a walk in the Midtown district as others continued to dig. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Inbound flights from Seattle, Dallas and Denver were either delayed or canceled late Monday and Tuesday morning.

Brian Ellestad, the airport’s deputy director, said the airfield remained open throughout the storm, and the few cancellations that took place were likely caused by weather elsewhere.

“We were able to keep the airfield open for the duration of the storm. It was pretty much all hands on deck,” Ellestad said. “United canceled a few flights, and our flight from Seattle got canceled. There’s plenty of weather around the system, but there was no reason our weather should have been a factor.”

The storm did prompt the closure of Interstates 90 and 15 in some stretches due to blowing and drifting snow. Highway 200 near Helmville was also closed, and an Amtrak train stuck in Oregon turned back to Seattle.

The winter storm warning issued on Monday expired midday on Tuesday, though another round of winter weather is expected on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Tomorrow it’s going to be bringing in another wave, and we’re expecting 1 to 2 inches across western Montana,” said Nobel. “We have another wave moving in on Thursday, and we’re expecting anywhere from 1 to 3 inches on that one.”

While the weather went to the dogs starting Sunday, this pair delighted in the snowfall early Tuesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Bob Naster, also with the National Weather Service office in Missoula, said February 2019 will likely end as the third coldest on record. Missoula hasn’t been above the freezing mark since Feb. 16.

“By the end of the week, we should reach our third coldest February on record with an average temperature of 17 degrees,” Naster said. “It’s also the third snowiest on record. Right now, we’ve had 22.2 inches of snow this month.”

The coldest February on record in Missoula was 1936 with an average temperature of 11 degrees, followed by 1989. Missoula received 40 inches of snow in February 2013.

This winter, roughly 52.7 inches of snow has been recorded at the airport, according to Nobel.