Community, Meteorology

Thinking About Smoke

As I went for the allergy meds this morning, I thought of Wylie Osler.  For those who never had the opportunity to know Wylie, I can only wish that I had a record of all his stories – Wylie saw the humor in most everything he encountered. 

Wylie had asthma – and his story about smoke was that he was the only person in Montana who had a prescription, written by Dr. Schroeder, to leave his home on Dickey Lake and spend the weekend in an airconditioned motel in Spokane.  I misremember if the story grew out of a disagreement on tax preparation or what – but it was a time when air conditioning was not common in the valley.  Our normal way to keep a house cool was opening windows at night.  While the technique let us escape the heat, it didn’t allow us to escape the smoke.

My own asthma was never as severe as Wylie’s – at the worst, all I’ve had to do is sit down and concentrate on breathing calmly to keep it under control.  As a youngster, I had a benzedrine inhaler.  It was a wonderful thing – sniff through it and nasal congestion disappeared.  Up until I turned 10.  My otc inhaler that gave me normal breathing was banned by the FDA in 1959 – but I was a kid, and didn’t notice the ban until it quit working a couple years later.  It seems the FDA was protecting me because some folks were taking the inhalers apart, soaking the strip of benzedrine treated paper, and squeezing the amphetamine out.  It’s kind of the first time I learned that government intervention may be in someone’s best interest, but not mine.  From my early teen years until my early thirties my susceptibility to allergens of all sorts increased – that, and a shoulder injury brought me a 1-Y draft classification . . . I think it translates to “the nation will be really desperate before we need this guy.”  In my thirties, the new wonder was a steroid shot for asthma – it was great, but I needed too many.  My physicians stopped that, and called for desensitization shots.  Somehow, I still think of that 39 cent inhaler that brought me such easy breathing . . . and the politicians who took it away.  It was such an easy and affordable solution.

My experience with relatively mild asthma gives a little perspective into the challenges that led to Wylie’s prescription for a weekend in an airconditioned motel away from the valley – and I suspect we have neighbors today who have even less physical ability to cope with the smoke.


Our Predicted Weather

These maps show our weather predictions for November-December-January (taken from NOAA website).  It looks like above average precipitation for us, and normal temperatures.  Personally, I think that means “put the plow on the front of the tractor and the snowblower on the back.”  To some it may mean “Fill the woodshed.”  Next year’s predictions for each 3 months are available here.  

Predicted Precipitation for November 2021-January 2022
Predicted Temperature for November 2021-January 2022

Community, Meteorology

The Weatherman Said

It looks like we’re into some near record or even record breaking high temperatures.  Kalispell’s record high was 105 degrees back in 1961.  I probably handled that by heading into the creek.  Still, that’s fairly gentle, compared to Glendive in 1893, or Medicine Lake in 1937 – both of which saw 117 degrees. 

As I look at the predictions for the next few days, my mind goes back to the concept of growing degree days, and then to the temperature limits on plant growth.  Corn, for example, doesn’t grow unless the temperature is at least 50 degrees, and anything over 86 is wasted.  Today’s heat isn’t much help for the sweet corn in the garden.  Wheat, as I recall handles temperatures up to 90 – but there isn’t much good to be said about 100+ degree weather for crops or people.  Alfalfa doesn’t notice the temperature until it tops 104.  (All of this is from memory, and the last time I taught the class was 35 years ago – I don’t believe that I’ve lost it since then, but checking the numbers won’t hurt my feelings)

The excess temperature has the spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and similar leafy greens bolting – going into seed production early.  I’m not sure how the early heat is going to affect the tomatoes and peppers this early in their growth.

Still, I’ve been through the hottest day Montana could offer – I was manning a target so we could tie in two separate benchmarks on two separate mountains . . . the kind of job a monkey with passable radio discipline could handle.  I’d figured on waiting for the radio call to shift the target, then napping in the shade.  When I got to the only shade available, I saw a rattlesnake slide into a crack in the boulder I had planned to use as a back rest.  It was a shady, smooth boulder – and if I had gotten there 5 minutes later, I would have probably got the nap.  Instead, I stood in the sunlight.  There’s a word for fear of snakes.

A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

With the April Run We Could Make Solid Comments on Snow Pack

My last year of snow surveys – 40 some years ago – was, in some ways, the hardest one. Jay Penney was out on medical leave with congestive heart failure, Tom Engel had transferred to Phoenix, and I was handling both the Flathead and Kootenai drainages with help from the Forest Service. I can’t say enough good about those guys – over six months, I’d meet a new sidekick daily, few that I’d work with twice, and only one screwed up a snowmobile – and I could still drive it out without a ski (the old Alpines had only one ski, and it didn’t take much of a blunder in reverse to break it off).

In April I could confidently comment on the status of the snowpack. Then, telemetry was new. Today, we have a website and the graph does a good job of showing how the snowpack data gets a lot more solid at the end of March.

This next graph does a great job of showing why the measurements are in snow-water equivalents instead of just the depth of snow.  The green peaks show individual snow storms, and how quickly the snow settles from the fluffy snowflakes.

So where are we?  As of 04/03/21, these are the numbers.

Snow WaterPercent of Average
Stahl Peak27.0 inches78 %
Grave Creek11.2 inches81 %
Banfield Mountain13.7 inches77 %
Hawkins Lake20.8 inches84 %
Garver Creek 8.8 inches96 %
Poorman Creek29.5 inches83 %

If I were running the numbers, I’d say we’re on the light side of normal – but it isn’t my call. It is interesting to note that none of my measurements are left in the 30-year average.

A Science for Everyone, Meteorology

Snow Pack on March 1

The long-term average for snow surveys were dated for the first of the month when I started measuring snow 45 years ago.  The old guys did it the hard way – up Burma Road early, skis or snowshoes to the Weasel Cabin, build a fire, sample the snow course, then overnight.  The next day they would head down the creek, then climb Stahl, build a fire, sample the snow course, then hike out the next morning, sample the course at Grave Creek, hike the rest of the way out and finish the job driving the pickup out.  As a modern, I drove a snowmobile and did 3 snow courses in a day.  Now I click a link on the home computer, and can look at the whole basin’s information in minutes.

The numbers from March 1 were kind of sacred – there had been enough winter that Jay Penney felt safe projecting the data – enough was in that he would comment that the snowpack was light, normal or heavy.

These are some of the snow courses I measured in those middle days, when we thought a snowmobile was absolutely modern, and were experimenting with measuring snow water at Noisy Basin with a radioactive source and receiver.  We were state of the art back then.     

ElevationWater EquivalentPercent of Average
Banfield Mountain5600 feet13.1 inches88%
Hawkins Lake6450 feet18.9 inches94%
Garver Creek4250 feet8.4 inches101%
Stahl Peak6030 feet24.4 inches86%
Grave Creek4300 feet13.1 inches87%
Poorman Creek5100 feet29.4 inches95%
Bear Mountain5400 feet45.6 inches87%
Hand Creek5035 feet9.2 inches102%
Noisy Basin6040 feet31.5 inches106%
To get to the data – and the map – you just click . Making the data so available makes hydrology a science for everyone.
A Science for Everyone, Meteorology


It’s not really that cold out, is it?

Are you asking the thermometer? To a chemist or a physicist, temperature is really just a measure of how fast the molecules that make up air are moving, how much energy they have.

To those of us more interested in what the thermometer says outside, temperature has more to do with the rate at which we exchange heat with the environment. At the same temperature, a metal spoon will feel hotter than a wooden one; The metal spoon, being metal and thus more conductive exchanges heat with us at a faster rate, and so feels hotter.

Cold works the same way. The faster we lose heat, the colder it feels, even if the reading on the thermometer hasn’t gone down any.

Windchill, then, has to do with the way wind changes the rate at which we exchange heat with the air around us, specifically the rate at which we lose heat.

It makes an obvious sort of sense. The more wind, the more particles of air move by us, the more opportunities for particles of air to get a little warmer and us to get a little colder. But it’s actually worse. Wind will strip away that nice little layer of air you’ve already exchanged some heat with. It’s slightly warmer (which means its taking slightly less of your heat) and keeping all that really cold air from touching your skin. Insulating. Wind strips away that insulating layer of air.

Windchill, while ostensibly a measure of how cold it feels, is really a measure of heat loss. At it turns out, your body cares far more about how cold it feels than how cold the thermometer reads. While your skin temperature isn’t going to drop below ambient temperature, your body will perceive things as colder than they are, and respond accordingly. Frostbite? Hypothermia? The symptoms of those are the result of the body responding to how cold it feels.

Thirty degrees and windy can’t actually drop your skin’s temperature below thirty, but it’ll feel colder, and that is enough to increase the risk of cold related injury such as frostbite. While the equations to calculate windchill vary a bit, windchill warnings are serious business.

It’s not really that cold out, is it? Not if you ask the thermometer. If you’re asking me, however…

A Science for Everyone, Meteorology

Measuring Wind Speed

While it’s certainly possible to measure wind speed with an anemometer, looking out the window is often good enough.

That’s because, back in 1805 Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort developed this handy scale for guessing wind speed based on the sort of observations that can be made out a window. As windspeeds increase, Beaufort’s scale starts to look positively superior to an anemometer. With my little handheld anemometer, I have to go stand out in the weather and hold it. Beaufort’s scale? I can make my estimate from the inside, a decided virtue.

This is probably one of my favorite charts for determining wind speed, but I haven’t found its origins yet.

While Beaufort’s scale isn’t going to be useful in all situations (a still summer’s day, when no fires are burning, for example), it’s still pretty handy. And, the times its most useful coincide nicely with the times I’d rather be indoors watching the storm instead of standing in it.

According to Beaufort’s scale, that little whirlwind we had last fall, having caused some structural damage, was probably somewhere between 55 and 60 miles per hour.

With roofing torn off, the wind was definitely more than a “Fresh Gale: Twigs and Small Branches broken off trees”. The next level, a “Strong Gale” has slates blown from roofs. While I’m no expert on roofing, the damage seems to be a bit worse than that. So, probably in the “Whole Gale”, or 55-60 range.

In that instance, using Beaufort’s scale seems far safer than standing outside with an anemometer, even if the machine would be more precise.