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Looking back at Miles City's historic ice jam as cold weather continues

Posted at 5:30 PM, Dec 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-27 11:12:18-05

MILES CITY — Montana has the highest number of reported ice jams and ice jam-related deaths in the lower 48 states. Most, like Miles City's historic 1944 ice jam, usually occur in the springtime but with the ever-changing weather, ice jams are making their appearance across the state a little earlier.

That ice covering the Yellowstone River may look beautiful, but in the right conditions, all that ice can lead to ice jams.

“It can create flooding so that water can rise pretty fast. When we have some big ice jams, you can see water on streams as big as the Yellowstone rising at a foot an hour,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Chambers on Monday.

Chambers has been monitoring Montana’s weather for the past two decades. He said one of our state’s most devastating ice jams happened in the spring of 1944 when the Yellowstone River flooded Miles City.


Homes and businesses ended up 10 feet underwater.

“Their solution was to call in an Army Air Corp bomber B-17 to drop 250-pound bombs on the ice jam till it broke up,” Chambers said.

It was a drastic solution, but it worked.

Chambers said ice jams this time of year typically only last a day or two because the ice is weak, and the water breaks it up quickly.

In March and April, like when the ice jam in Miles City occurred, conditions are more dangerous.

“Once we get into the spring, that ice is thicker. It’s going to stick around longer, and those flooding events can be bigger so now’s the time to take action to prevent loss of life and property,” said Chambers.


He said there are a couple of ways ice jams can form.

You can actually form ice from the top, the sides, and the bottom and squeeze that water. And force that water to come up out of the channel and run across the top of the ice,” Chambers said.

Little can be done to prevent ice jams and they can happen with little to no notice. It’s one reason why Chambers advises always being ready with sandbags just in case it happens.

“The biggest thing is to just get out of the way, let nature do its thing. It’ll work itself out,” said Chambers.