Even without the snow that piled up Thursday, Billings was well on pace to have one of the snowiest winters in history, with to-date accumulation at its highest total than any other winter in 40 years.
As of midnight Wednesday, the Magic City had been blanketed by 66.7 inches of snow this winter, according to the National Weather Service's Billings office.
While the city's official snow total from the NWS weather station at the Billings Logan International Airport wouldn't be available until Friday, preliminary reports showed as much as 6 new inches of snow fell Thursday. That's nearly 74 inches already. The record is just over 100 inches.
A La Niña weather pattern developed before the winter, which in the Northern Rocky Mountains is typically associated with colder, wetter winters. That could explain some of the relentless snowfall Billings has received this winter, but Wright Dobbs, a meteorologist with the local NWS office, said it's hard to pinpoint the degree to which that global pattern is affecting local weather.
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"For the last month or two at least, we've had a persistent ridge of high pressure that's set up to the west of us," Dobbs said. As a result, the jet stream has been pushed farther north than its typical wintertime flow, allowing colder air to "seep" down from the Arctic into Montana, as well as the Midwest and Northeast regions of the country.
Combined with steady bands of Pacific moisture from the west, several massive snowstorms since December have dumped the second-most snow on Billings by Feb. 15 than any other year since the historic winter of 1977-78.
And it's also been much colder than normal, allowing those snow berms to hang around longer than during a typical winter. Since Dec. 1, the average temperatures in Billings has been 3.5 degrees below normal, according to NWS data.
The average high temperature has been just 32.6 degrees, compared with the typical average high of 36.4 degrees during that time frame.
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"Which is a pretty good anomaly for us," Dobbs said, noting that typically, longer-lived systems of warm wind from the west and southwest help to mitigate the region's otherwise frigid winters. "Through a lot of the winter, those periods have been short. ... They haven't been long enough to do much damage to the snow depth."
More snow is in the forecast later this week. A slight chance of snow will develop Friday and become more likely by the weekend, according to NWS. Possible snowfall is being predicted through Tuesday, although Dobbs said it's too early to estimate what level of accumulation can be expected.
"If people are looking for a break in the snow, it doesn't look like it's going to happen for the next five days," he said.
While many in Billings could probably do without endless shoveling, streets like ice rinks and the morning commute's glacial pace, the mountains within the Yellowstone River basin and elsewhere in Montana are flush with snow to supply water downstream this summer.
The Yellowstone's Montana headwaters on Thursday were at 165 percent of the basin's typical snowpack for this point in the year. All 22 high-elevation snow gauges in the drainage showed above-average readings for snow-water equivalent Thursday, according to data from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
And while much of the Western U.S. struggles under a prolonged drought and lower-than-average snowfall so far this year, every major watershed in Montana has above-average snowpack, particularly east of the Continental Divide.
Cities in north-central Montana have also been taking a pounding from this winter's storms. In Havre, a total of 70 inches of snow has accumulated this winter season, putting the Hi-Line city just 13.5 inches away from its all-time record set in 1977.
"Right now, if they got no more snow between now and basically the end of the winter, that would put them in fifth place for all-time snow amounts," said Matt Jackson with the Great Falls NWS office.
Still, the plentiful winter precipitation hasn't translated to major gains for Eastern Montana, much of which is still dealing with a lingering drought.
"If you're looking at Wolf Point to Culbertson to Plentywood, those areas are still kind of hurting," said Tanja Fransen, the meteorologist in charge at the NWS office in Glasgow. "The snowmelt helps the rivers and the irrigators, but it doesn't really help us as far as drought conditions go for ranchers or livestock."
For the water year that began last October, Plentywood is just 0.02 inches of rain above average, while Culbertson and Glendive have both received about 25 percent less than their typical precipitation to date.
"We always joke that we're always two weeks from a drought and two weeks from a flood around here," Fransen said.