What does El Niño mean for Montana's winter?

Posted at 9:37 AM, Nov 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-14 17:46:37-05

We’re wrapping up the year of 2023. It went by fast (we say that every year) and we’re finally headed into the winter season. So what’s ahead for us here in Montana?

Well this year, for the first time in about six years, El Niño is in place.

Historically, El Niño years represent hot anomalies on earth, as warmer ocean temperatures push the jet stream south. The last time an El Niño pattern was in place lasted through 2016 - which clocked in at the hottest year on record.

And that winter of 2015/16 was projected to be warmer and drier than average. In fact, the warmest December occurred in 2015 - that season Helena only saw 63% of normal snowpack. However, it is worth noting that other cities such as Glasgow and Missoula still saw 100% of normal snowpack that season. Click here to explore more wintertime analysis and data.

2023 is set to break 2016's record and become the hottest year globally since records began. El Niño is expected to last until April, and according to the World Meteorological Organization, El Niño will fuel even more record temps in 2024.

This is in the background of a winter outlook that’s expected to be warmer than average for the northern half of the United States. The National Weather Service is also projecting winter to be drier than average for the northern Rockies right here in Montana. In this scenario, drought conditions are expected to persist in our region.

These seasonal outlooks are updated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration every month. The next one will be available November 16.

Now here’s some comforting news; snow forecasts are generally not predictable more than a week in advance and it’s still early in the season. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and pray for snow!

NOAA Winter Seasonal Outlook
NOAA Winter Seasonal Outlook Precipitation
U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook