This photo of a temperature inversion was taken from Bompart Ridge on the southern edge of Helena, Montana on Sunday, December 10. Cold air was sitting in the valley below. The temperature on the valley floor was ~15 F, and it was ~20 F on this ridge. The reason you can see the cold air is that it fills with fog and pollution.
Its a valley thing.
During winter months, the mountain valleys of western Montana are prone to inversions – called this because they really are "upside-down situations". NORMALLY the atmosphere gets colder as you get farther away from Earth's surface because the air is warmed from the bottom up by heat given off by the Earth. However during inversions, air at the surface is much colder than the air above. Local hikers know this means that it can be 5-10 degrees warmer on top of the mountain than it is down at the trailhead.
Recipe for a temperature inversion - Clear, Calm, Cold
Mountain valleys serve as “sinks” where cold, dense air may sit for several days. They develop during clear, calm, cold nights – especially in December and January. Clouds act like a blanket, keeping much of the heat given off by the Earth close to the surface. So, on clear nights this heat escapes quickly out to space, and air at the surface becomes cold (and heavy). The low angle of the Sun in December and January prevents this valley air from heating up during the days. Snow cover, which reflects sunlight, and the shortness of winter days also help prevent it from warming. If the inversion persists for several days, air quality worsens as the stagnant, cold air fills with pollutants such as smoke from wood-burning stoves or emissions from automobiles.
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