Hoar Frost or Rime Ice, or Something Else?

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

I woke up on December 29, after two days of dense fog, to see everything–leaves, grasses, fencing wire, pine needles–coated in a beautiful layer of hoar frost.

But wait…hoar frost occurs only in very specific conditions: namely cold, clear, and windless nights with low humidity, when the rapid radiant heat loss from surfaces causes water vapor–not liquid water droplets, as in fog–to form delicate, needle-like crystals on those surfaces. The previous two nights had been anything but cloudless with low humidity. You could feel the cold fog droplets on your face when you walked.

But it sure LOOKS like hoar frost. What’s going on here?

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Hydrology Snapshot, September 2023

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

Here is a quick end-of-summer hydrology snapshot as of 9/18/23. (Compare to July 2023.)

Rainfall YTD-3.4” from average
Flathead Lake Level-36” (3’) from full pool
Hungry Horse Reservoir-168” (14’) from full pool
Streamflow, Flathead River-80 cfps from normal
Snowpackn/a
Snowmeltn/a

Despite a welcome August rain (21st wettest August on record) from the remnants of Cyclone Hilary, most of the Flathead Valley is still experiencing “moderate drought.” As of this writing, we’re experiencing the 6th driest year in 129 years of record keeping. Lake levels remain at historic lows. Streamflow in the North and Middle forks of the Flathead River are at “historic lows.” Streamflow in the Flathead River is somewhat mitigated by release from the Hungry Horse dam, which by regulation must maintain a minimum streamflow level for water leaving the dam. That release is causing the water level at the dam to drop.

Local lakes and ponds have benefitted from the August rain. Water levels are noticeably higher than they were in July, but are still far below average levels. Some of this increase is due to runoff, and some is due to the raising of the water table through replenishment of the shallow aquifers that underlie most of the West Valley area.

Compare this image to the image at the top of this page and to the image from the Hydrology Snapshot, July 2023.

The other noticeable effect of the August rain event was the immediate and dramatic greening up of local flora. And lawns.

Are We Drying Up?

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

Editor’s note: In an earlier post on our website (Water Water Everywhere?) I discussed the nature of our valley water resources. Our groundwater comes from two sources–the shallow, unconfined aquifers that are replenished by precipitation, and the deeper confined aquifer from which Kalispell’s municipal water and most of the water used for irrigation in the valley is drawn. None of our water comes from reservoirs. (Whitefish gets its municipal water from Whitefish Lake.) A review of that article might provide good context for this article.

The intent of this article is intended to stimulate thought, not to advocate for a specific viewpoint. To that end, some assumptions, disclaimers and caveats:

  • I’m not a hydrologist, climatologist, or a geologist–just an interested observer;
  • Weather can change quickly in these parts;
  • Weather and climate are not the same thing;
  • I don’t know the answers to the questions I am posing.

It’s not difficult to see what a critical force water has been in the geographical and habitation history of our valley. If we didn’t have access to abundant water resources, both above and below ground, we would not be the agricultural center that we are now. And if it weren’t for glaciers, snowpack, and rushing rivers and streams, the landscape around here would look a lot different. There probably wouldn’t even be a place level enough with sufficient soil to farm at all.

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Hydrology Snapshot, July 2023

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

My intention with this post is to begin a regular documentation of the local effects that hydrological issues have on life here in the valley.

This post from last month–Water Water Everywhere?–discusses some of the hydrological factors involved in how we access water resources for drinking and agriculture here in the valley, including a discussion of the water table and the Deep Aquifer, from which most of our water is drawn. The distinction between the water table and the Deep Aquifer is important. Rainfall, which can alter the local water table either by its presence or absence, does not affect the amount of water in the Deep Aquifer. Please refer to that article for more information.

Here’s a quick Flathead Valley hydrology snapshot from July 4, 2023:

Rainfall YTD5” (avg 9.72”)
Flathead Lake Level12” below 23-year median,
9” below full pool
Valley Sreamflow60% below average
Snowpack86% of average
SnowmeltFastest in 30 years
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Aurora Borealis in the Flathead

by Denise Silva (text and images)
Denise.Silva@aicpa-cima.com

The Aurora Borealis is often referred to as the Northern Lights because we see it to our north. But this is a bit of a misnomer, as the “lights” are also seen in the Southern Hemisphere, where they are referred to as the Aurora Australis. In fact, not only does Earth have auroral displays, but auroras can be seen on images of other celestial bodies, such as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

Aurora over Kalispell
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West Valley Geology Tour

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

Welcome to a virtual tour of some of the Flathead Valley’s prominent (and some not so prominent) geological features, courtesy of Google Earth.

This tour is a companion piece to several articles that have appeared elsewhere on our website:

This inspiration for this project came largely from the work of Dr. Lex Blood, professor emeritus, Flathead Valley Community College, for his extensive (and clearly heartfelt) efforts to make the geological history of the valley accessible to everyone. Thank you, Lex.

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Water Water Everywhere?

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here.

It’s easy to take water for granted here in the valley. We’re surrounded by water, with numerous streams and rivers, lakes and ponds of various sizes, and seasonal runoff from snow and rain that typically replenish the surface water that we see.

The water we drink and irrigate with here in the West Valley comes from underground aquifers–layers of permeable rocks or sediments that are saturated with water. Our shallower surface aquifers are fed by groundwater that enters the aquifers mostly through seasonal precipitation or snowmelt.

The Flathead Valley also sits directly atop a large, deep aquifer referred to in studies, appropriately enough, as The Deep Aquifer. It’s from this aquifer that our municipal water is drawn. Farms and homes also tap into the Deep Aquifer via wells for irrigation or daily use. (The city of Whitefish does not draw water from the Deep Aquifer. They draw their municipal water from Whitefish Lake and surrounding streams. See Editor’s Note, below, for clarification.)

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Glaciers, Faults, and Tectonics

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleyaturalists.org

To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here

Here in the Flathead Valley, we’re fortunate to be able to enjoy a richly varied landscape—craggy mountains, rolling hills, swift rivers and meandering streams lined with brightly colored stones, a sprawling valley floor punctuated with the occasional boulder or with massive rock outcroppings displaying multiple bands of colors and textures, clearwater lakes fed by springs or seasonal precipitation, wetlands that provide shelter and food for our avian residents. It’s a rare day that I’m not struck by the immense beauty of our valley.

But do you ever wonder how it got this way?

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Hoarfrost or Rime Ice?

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

A few days ago, driving around West Valley, I remarked on the beauty of the hoarfrost that had coated some Ponderosa pines along the roadside. That got me wondering about the nature of hoarfrost and how it forms. It turns out that some of what I have been calling hoarfrost is, in fact, not hoarfrost, but rather rime ice. The difference is not important for the casual observer, but it can be important meteorologically.

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Geology Field Trip

by Dr. Lex Blood, Community Activist, Conservationist, Professor Emeritus/Flathead Valley Community College

To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here

The West Valley Naturalists sponsored a geology field trip in May 2014.  Dr. Lex Blood led this field trip; for more than 40 years Lex Blood has served as Flathead Valley geologist, geographer, educator, conservationist. After a brief introduction we car-pooled and explained the “story behind the landscape” as we traveled through the West Valley area.  For background information on the geology of the Flathead Valley please visit: http://www.flatheadwatershed.org/natural_history/geology.shtml

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Flathead Valley Water Resources

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here

Mike Koopal, Executive Director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, pointed us to some exceptional resources for learning more about the Flathead Valley watershed and the numerous lakes and streams that make up some of the most beautiful areas of the west valley area and the rest of Montana.

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