BUTTE, MT - If you had to place a bet on Montana's weather patterns, would you bet that Montana's weather has been getting colder or hotter?

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No matter your stance on the topic, climate change—or "global warming" as Wallace Broecker famously called it back in 1975—has been dominating Western environmental culture since its popularization by many prominent figures and politicians in the 90s and early 2000s; most notably Al Gore and his film An Inconvenient Truth. Since then, the jury has been out on the reliability of climate change's authenticity, with many—including famous author Michael Crichton and former president Donald Trump—publicly questioning the more sensationalist aspects of proponents for climate change claims.

However, there seems to be agreement across the board that there very much is a changing climate, which is just the way the world works, experts insist. Think of Ice Age and the Younger Dryas events. What does that mean for us living here in Montana? Anyone who's lived here between the months of October and June knows that extremely cold weather is never off the table. But are the cold days getting colder and more frequent?

I decided to take a look at the data over the past 60 years revolving around Western Montana to give us an idea of what the answer may be. Unsurprisingly, the past 60 years in Western Montana have seen significant changes in weather patterns, especially when examining temperature and precipitation (i.e.: "Dang, it's cold today for being the 4th of July," and "Wow, it's snowing today on the 4th of July,"). Let's take a look at recent weather trends and see what that really entails.

Temperature Trends

Over the past 60 years, temperature data for the region of Western Montana has shown a significant increase in average temperatures. Extremely cold days are ending sooner in the year while extremely hot days are not only getting more frequent, but are also lasting longer. To be more specific, the data shows that "extremely cold days", classified as days measured at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, are now ending 20 days earlier on average compared to the decades before. Extremely hot days, classified as days measured at 90 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, have tripled in number and their season has expanded by 24 days a year (Pederson et at., 2010).

In short: data shows colder days are less frequent and hotter days are more frequent.

Precipitation Patterns

Recent studies using high-resolution climate models indicate that while the overall spatial patterns of winter precipitation in Western Montana remain consistent with historical trends, higher elevations and areas upstream of the continental divide are experiencing increased amounts of precipitation and greater year-to-year variability. This means that these regions might see more snow or rain than previously recorded, with significant fluctuations between years. These changes pose challenges for flood forecasting, water resource management, and climate change adaptation strategies due to the increased unpredictability of precipitation patterns.

Taking a look at more recent studies, patterns of precipitation have been increasing, especially when looking at higher elevations like the Continental Divide. High-resolution climate models were utilized to indicate the overall spatial pattern of winter precipitation in Western Montana. They found that it's actually remained consistent with historical trends in lower elevations of Montana, yet in higher elevations and areas upstream of the continental divide, the precipitation has increased amounts and "greater year-to-year variability."

What does that mean? It means that these higher elevated regions in Western Montana might see more snow or rain than previously recorded, though still experiencing massive fluctuations between the years—all while getting more precipitation in general compared to 60 years prior. Many implications come with it: flooding potential, water resource management, and adaptation strategies are challenging due to the unpredictability of patterns (Silverman et al., 2013) & (Changnon et al., 1993).


The Takeaway

Montana appears to be getting warmer, not colder, and the weather itself, particularly in Western Montana, is highly variable—meaning unpredictable—and, because of the lack of clear precipitation trends, might cause problems for our infrastructure and cities. Current trends show that the patterns of increasingly warm days will only continue to go up, and periods of hot days will be more frequent.

So there you have it: it appears that Montana is getting warmer, which means more out-of-staters since the crazy cold weather won't keep them out. Oh well, back to the drawing board!

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