Snow-Eating Chinooks Blast Warmth in Dead of Winter



The children (about 40 of them, all second graders), sat in a group on the floor inside one of Glacier National Park’s interpretive centers. It was the dead of winter, but it didn’t matter to them, because they were on a field trip. They had just gotten inside from a snowshoe hike and were now listening to a ranger read a story from a picture book, entitled The Bear that Stole the Chinook. The Chinooks, it was explained, are warm winds that often herald the coming of springtime by warming the air. The story, and the song on the CD that accompanied it, was a retelling of a Native American legend surrounding a greedy bear who wanted to hoard the warmth of the wind for himself.

Perhaps it was stories like this one that inspired the nickname that stuck for the Chinooks—we call them the snow eaters today.

Once these Montana students reach the eighth grade, they’ll read about the Chinook winds again in their required textbook—Montana: Stories of The Land—relearning the geography they had forgotten from third grade. Instead of splitting Montana into East and West, as elementary texts and teachers do, this book draws a third line and gives Montana a Central section, a place between the mountains and the plains—a “Chinook corridor”—where the warm winds keep the weather milder than in the Rocky Mountains to the east or the Great Plains to the west.

Chinooks are a formidable force of nature, affecting parts of the Northern U.S. and Canada. According to, they cause extreme temperature changes and melt snow extremely quickly, much faster than would the average spring day. They are one of the few extreme weather phenomena in the mountainous inland northern regions. Relatively free of tornadoes and unaffected by hurricanes, the Northern Rocky Mountains and adjoining plains to the east are generally known for their hot summers and long, cold winters, not their bizarre meteorological happenings.

But Chinooks are an exception, weather events in the region worth talking about. They make their way into storybooks and textbooks, because seasons in the North typically move slowly.

Without the aid of a Chinook, winter melts very gradually into spring. Snow remains on the hilltops in April, keeping the water cold and the air chilly. Spring slowly becomes greener before eventually morphing into summer, which gradually turns to fall. Then a long wait for winter begins.

But the Chinook induces sudden change, thawing in a matter of hours the snow that would typically take all of February to melt. Suddenly, a small spring emerges—over the course of a couple of hours rather than months. This is why second graders read about it in a storybook and why eighth graders learn about it in their geography texts.

The Chinooks were valuable to the indigenous people of the Northern Rockies and Northwestern plains, who felt inspired to create elaborate legends about these snow-eating winds. And they are still valuable today—valuable enough to captivate an audience of 40, squirming second graders in the dead of winter. MSN

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