BUTTE, MT - Have you ever seen the East Ridge (or any mountain, for that matter) with a perfect line of snow on it and wondered how it got there? 

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It's happened to me more times than I can count as I've driven the lonely highways of Montana. It’s like the mountain has a special belt of snow, and it's so perfectly straight that it looks like straight-up magic. Well, since I get paid to do it, I thought I'd conduct a little research and investigate this strange happenstance.

When I was trying to look it up, I couldn't figure out a good way to describe it. But it turns out it's called something pretty obvious—so obvious, in fact, that I questioned my intelligence all together. The official name of the beautiful occurrence is called the "snow line," and it’s all about how cold it is as you go up higher on the mountain.

The snow line over the East Ridge from this last storm. Credit: Devon Brosnan
The snow line over the East Ridge from this last storm. Credit: Devon Brosnan

So, what is a snow line, exactly?

Allow me to paint you a word picture. Imagine you're climbing a tall mountain, and, as you go up, you might notice it gets colder and colder. That's because—spoiler alert—the higher you go, the cooler the air will get. At some point on this mountain of hypotheticalness, it gets so cold that the rain will turn to snow. That line where it crosses from rain to snow marks the snow line. Very obvious, right? Well...

Is the snow line the same everywhere?

Believe it or not, it actually is not the same. I was very surprised, especially since I spent the better half of an hour explaining to my poor girlfriend about the  "global snow line" (which doesn't exist). In a way, the snow line is like a magical ruler that changes based on where you are, and a number of different factors come into play to determine that line.

Let's break down those interesting variables that determine where a snow line falls.

Geographical Relevance:

  • Closer to the Equator: Higher elevations are required for snow accumulation due to warmer temperatures.
  • Closer to the Poles: The snow line occurs at lower elevations since the overall temperatures are cooler (us here in Butte).

Local Climate:

  • Maritime Climates: Near oceans, the snow line is typically higher because the air tends to be warmer and wetter (I wish this was us here in Butte).
  • Continental Climates: Inland areas often have a lower snow line due to cooler, drier air.

Weather Patterns:

  • Seasonal Changes: The snow line rises in warmer months and falls in colder months.
  • Storm Systems: Can temporarily lower the snow line during cold fronts or storms.

Geographic Features:

  • Mountain Range Orientation: Ranges that catch moist air will have a different snow line compared to those in rain "shadows".
  • Topography: Valleys and ridges can create "microclimates" that affect the snow line locally.


  • Higher Elevations: Typically see a lower snow line due to naturally cooler temperatures.
  • Lower Elevations: Snow line will be higher since it’s generally warmer.

Examples in the U.S.:

  • Rocky Mountains: The snow line is higher in the southern Rockies compared to the northern Rockies.
  • Pacific Northwest: Has a higher snow line due to warmer, wetter air from the Pacific Ocean.
  • Northeastern U.S.: Has a lower snow line due to the colder climate.

So, the next time you're making the painful drive to Billings and come across the tens of mountain ranges on the way, you now have another trivial fun fact in your arsenal to prove to your kids that you're smarter than they are—and don't let them forget it.

Ending on a genuine fun fact:

Some mountains might have different snow lines on different sides of its ridges. This is because one side might get more sunlight, making it warmer, while the other side stays cooler and keeps the snow lower down. Well, I thought that fact was fun...

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