Column: Observing winter weather from the air in Yellowstone

This column originally ran in West Yellowstone News, West Yellowstone MT.

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Flying around western topography affords the ability to see things that few people would bother to notice, and then to put the pieces together as to how these things relate to other factors. For example, the average visitor to Yellowstone probably just thinks the whole place gets a lot of snow, because the quantity far exceeds where he or she visited from, and fails to notice that things change in different areas of the park.

Other than the mountain ranges, snowfall is highest in the southwest over the Madison Plateau and lowest in the northern and northeastern low elevation sections where the Yellowstone River empties toward Montana. To find this information out the “normal” way, I had to do some digging on Google, settling on a State of Wyoming annual mean snowfall map. To find it out in reality, a flight into the park after a snowstorm says it all.

A few times, I ran into fog over the Lewis River Valley as I came in from Jackson, WY, finding that the fog settled into the intersection of the Lewis and Snake Rivers, and was bunched up against the Madison Plateau, Teton Range, and Red Mountains. Coupled with the fog, the snow seemed especially thick.

An added feature that occurs in high terrain is when the clouds descend to the terrain during snowfall. A phenomenon called “rime ice” develops, which is when super-cooled droplets of water in the clouds impact trees at temperatures below freezing, congealing to any terrain on impact. The ice is flaky, light, extremely white, and grows into the direction that the wind came from, encircling trees and their branches on all sides. This also happens on the western edge of the Red Mountains in southern Yellowstone, adding a resplendent white that is almost unbelievable from the air.

Not only is the ground covered in fresh white snow, every rock and tree is covered in a bright white coating that is brighter than any regular snowfall. The vista is cast against crystal blue skies, which, for some reason, seems to be common the morning after rime ice events. Instead of a sea of dry looking trees with intermixed beetle kill and historical wildfires, the entire thing erupts into delicious scenery clothed in white, with still calm air and utterly pleasant flying, other than for the total lack of heat in my airplane. Although I usually end up stiff as a board due to near hypothermia each time I fly in such weather, it is unequivocally worth it.

Garrett Fisher photographs from his 1949 Piper PA-11 aircraft, has published 9 books, and blogs extensively about his flying at www.garrettfisher.me. He is currently working on two books about Yellowstone from above, the Yellowstone River, glaciers of Wyoming, glaciers of Montana, Grand Teton National Park, and many other projects.