By Lochiel Edwards
There’s an old saying, “If you don’t like the weather in Montana, just wait a minute.”
A combination of impressive Rocky Mountains and sweeping plains, deep western valleys, and an unobstructed view of the North Pole: all these combine to create skittery and ever- changing conditions. That said, an abundance of sunshine and low humidity make the weather in Montana beautiful most every day.
Wind and temperature is prone to abrupt change, though. Our state holds the record-low temp for the lower 48, with a minus 70 reading taken near Lincoln in January 1954. Warmest was a recorded 117 degrees at Glendive and also near Medicine Lake. This range of 187 degrees from coldest to warmest is the most of all the 50 states.
But, the biggest shock for Montanans is how quickly temperatures can change.
Loma holds the world record for the greatest 24-hour change. In January, 1972, one of our Chinook winds took the temp there from 54 below zero to 49 above, a shift of 103 degrees in one day. In similar fashion, the US record for greatest 12-hour change was set in Fairfield, when an Alberta Clipper swept in from the north and dropped the thermometer from plus 63 to negative 21, a difference of 84 degrees.
These changes can be breathtakingly rapid, as when, in January 1980, a Chinook wind hit the Great Falls airport and raised the mercury by 47 degrees in just 7 minutes. Literally, just wait a minute!
Most Montanans and visitors to our state frame our unpredictable weather around a weekend trip to the lake or maybe a vacation in the mountains. The majority of tourism occurs in the summer and fall months, when sharp shifts in dangerous temperatures are uncommon. Rain is the most likely wet blanket to be thrown on a weekend camping trip, and the odds of this are low, given the dry climate.
Farmers are often lampooned for their habit of opening every conversation with comments about the weather. But, with just 3 percent of our crops and
grasslands irrigated from rivers or wells, farmers look to the sky to water their fields. The Big Sky is notoriously fickle when it comes to this.
Winter wheat has long been an important crop in Montana. This is planted in the fall, hopefully after a nice September rain, and then goes into hibernation during the winter. The primary peril of winter is the chance of the wild temperature swings mentioned above—too warm in midwinter can lure winter wheat into breaking dormancy and starting to grow, then suffering at the hands of a sharp north wind. If all goes well, the wheat awakens at the first hint of spring and takes advantage of the likelihood of cool weather and spring rains, before the progressively warmer and drier summer months come to bear.
Barley and spring wheat are planted in the spring, of course. Farmers work diligently to get spring crops started early in order to minimize the effects of July and August. A farmer’s axiom is that Montana has a drought each and every July and August.
With the variability in our state’s weather, insurance against crop failure is important. Our farmers work together with their business organization, Montana Grain Growers Association, to craft insurance against devastating weather events. Crop insurance is a complicated maze of rules, regulations, and actuarials, which can be rendered unusable without constant attention. Much of the value of Montana crop insurance coverage is owing to the staff and farmer-leaders of Montana Grain Growers.
So, whether you are a native or a visitor to Montana, enjoy the cool nights and sunny days of this great state! But please, when you make your wishes for fair weather as you partake of the Big Sky, throw in a request for some rainy weekdays this summer. Our farmers will love that!