Montana Outdoors

January 17, 2009

Upside down temperatures

Filed under: Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photography, Photos, Pictures, Winter — montucky @ 2:48 pm

The weathermen on the news stations here are mentioning that it will be relatively cold for the next week or so, but if we get tired of it we can always drive up into the higher elevations where it will be warmer. It’s a period of temperature inversion, where warm air moving over at high altitudes traps cold air down in the valleys, keeping them much colder and foggy. Above the inversion layer (currently around 4,000 feet) it’s clear and sunny.

Yesterday, while driving from western Montana across the Idaho pan handle and into eastern Washington, I chose to go over Lookout Pass on the Montana – Idaho border. There’s a small town beside the Clark Fork river at 2,500 feet on I-90, and in the morning there the temp was 16°. Thirty miles west at the pass, although it’s only a thousand feet higher, the temp was 32° and the snow was melting (which is not necessarily a good thing because that’s the location of a very nice ski area).

Here are a couple photos in the little town of DeBorgia just before the pass. A lot of their snow has melted in the last two weeks although yesterday they were under the inversion layer. Looks cold, doesn’t it!

DeBorgia, Montana

DeBorgia, Montana


  1. We see that here occasionally too. I never understood the reason for that cloud appearance. Thanks for explaining it.


    Comment by Cedar — January 17, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

  2. Cedar,

    I thought maybe that it occurred in other parts of the country too but wasn’t sure. If the roads off highway weren’t so iced up I’d try to get above the clouds. It’s beautiful up there when this happens!


    Comment by montucky — January 17, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  3. Looks like kind of a neat little town. I like the quality of the overhanging clouds.

    And yes, looks cold, though not terribly so.


    Comment by wolf — January 17, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  4. It’s a very small town, Wolf. Just a few houses. It’s usually pretty cold for this part of the country but probably not by your standards. They do get a huge amount of snow though.


    Comment by montucky — January 17, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  5. The appearance of those clouds caused by the inversion layer is almost supernatural in a spooky kind of way, like in the movies…I’m thinking Linda Blair and that genre of film. It’s very cool looking, and it’s not even created by Hollywood! I like it very much.


    Comment by Tabbie — January 17, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  6. Tabbie,

    I like seeing those clouds too. They can be very strange at different times though. They can turn into a freezing fog, or vary in their altitude and density. Today they were so heavy over the town of Missoula that airline flights had to be diverted to other towns (which is kind of tough around here because the towns with decent airports are so far apart). One of my cousins drove 80 miles to meet her husband’s flight only to find that it was sent to another town 200 miles in the other direction.

    Since I don’t have to be on the roads, I plan to sit back and enjoy whatever evolves for a few days and perhaps try to find a way to get high enough to be above the clouds. With more snow than we have or less, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but I’ll just have to wait and see.


    Comment by montucky — January 18, 2009 @ 12:43 am

  7. Interesting post. Thanks for the info about this phenomenon.


    Comment by scienceguy288 — January 18, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  8. We currently have the same “inverted” conditions, meteorologically speaking. But just a partial dome, not a complete roof as in your classic photos.


    Comment by Pinhole — January 18, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  9. Scienceguy,

    It’s an interesting phenomenon, but not necessarily a pleasant one.


    Comment by montucky — January 18, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  10. Pinhole,

    The deep valleys we have here create the “roof”. An article in a local paper this morning says that the clouds top out at 5,000 feet and above that are clear skies and warm temps. It will be a pretty day on the ski runs!


    Comment by montucky — January 18, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  11. Montucky,

    I’ve been keeping an eye on the Big Mountain webcam – the stratus is fairly high with this inversion at least here in the north Flathead. -The summit is in the sun but the base is under. I was hoping the deck would drop a bit and I could drive up for some photos but as it looks currently, I’d have to buy a pass and then ski.

    …hope that link works…


    Comment by Ann from Montana — January 18, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  12. That’s pretty cool, Ann! I just started to take a look and then had to answer an accident call. It’s dark now, but I’ll check that in the daytime!

    I wish I were closer to a ski area this week just to be able top get some pictures above the inversion.

    Thanks for the link!


    Comment by montucky — January 18, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  13. Blacktail Mountain

    This morning I thought to check Blacktail also…have to wait for daylight but Blacktail is an “upside-down” mountain…the lodge and parking is at the top and you ski down. If the lodge is in the clear, I might go up today – bonus is the lodge restaurant makes awesome burgers!


    Comment by Ann from Montana — January 19, 2009 @ 7:19 am

  14. Never heard of an inversion layer before, I learn something every day. Wow, really cool. The pictures look as if it is very cold.


    Comment by Preston Surface — January 19, 2009 @ 8:20 am

  15. Ann,

    Both areas look pretty good this morning. I wish I were a little closer!


    Comment by montucky — January 19, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  16. Preston,

    Inversion isn’t uncommon ere. Where I live it isn’t too bad, but in the cities where there’s pollution in the air, the layer traps it in and makes it miserable.

    The area where the photos were taken is usually quite cold an they have lots of snow. At the moment though a lot of it has melted because of the inversion. It was warmer there than in the lower valleys. By the end of winter there will be three times the amount of snow as there is now.


    Comment by montucky — January 19, 2009 @ 11:05 am

  17. Brrrrrr! Either way it sounds pretty cold to me!


    Comment by Adam R. Paul — January 19, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  18. Cold it is! Makes me want to spend a little time in your part of the country!


    Comment by montucky — January 19, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  19. weird! I did not know about this! I have never heard of temp inversion and never would have thought about going higher to get warmer! the photos are very nice. that first one is a little eerie though w/ the fog hovering like that…


    Comment by silken — January 20, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

  20. Yes, it is a little eerie. That’s the top of the fog layer that holds in the cold air below it. I like seeing it, but it gets old rather quickly unless you can get above it, and then it’s beautiful up there.


    Comment by montucky — January 20, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

  21. Oh man that’s *so* cool!! I wish I’d been here to see that–that’s so incredible.

    Just *gorgeous*!!


    Comment by gradschoolsara — February 2, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  22. Yes, it was cool. I wish I had had a little more time to look around while I was there, but I had a schedule to keep. It would have been interesting to have spent several hours in that general area!


    Comment by montucky — February 2, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

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