The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 2, DECEMBER 1997
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

NORTHWEST WEATHER AND AVALANCHE CENTER

Another Different Kind Of Place
Seattle, Washington
by Garth Ferber


Early in writing this article I must admit I was running into some horrific writers block. What could I say about the Center that needed to be said? I didn't necessarily want to convey the idea our lives at the Center is always a bowl of equi-temperature snow crystals. I decided I would mainly try to highlight some aspects of our program that we are proud of and some differences I see between ourselves and other centers.

A Little History

The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) began as a research project at University of Washington (UW) in 1976, funded by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The original visionaries included founding father Professor Ed LaChapelle and graduate students Rich Marriott and Mark Moore. When research funds ran dry the administration of the operational program was assumed by the regional office of the U.S. Forest Service, primarily through the efforts of Roland Emetaz. Mark is now the default director and lead avalanche meteorologist at the NWAC, with Kenny Kramer and myself also acting avalanche meteorologists. Rich Marriott, Sue Ferguson, Pam Hayes and others have also been employed here as forecasters in recent times. Each of us has our primary educational background in atmospheric science (meteorology) and a strong interest in backcountry and lift skiing. Of course we continue to learn all we can, both formally and observationally, about avalanches. The work also involves a lot of on the job learning about computers and software, weather instrument electronics, public relations, and advances in weather forecasting techniques.

We often emphasize that the NWAC is a cooperative program, with a priority on the exchange of information between the various cooperators that is facilitated by the NWAC.

Current contributors (monetary or otherwise) to the NWAC include the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), National Weather Service (NWS), National Park Service (NPS), Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (WSPRC), Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA) and other private sources. I guess that in many ways the cooperators have similar reasons for using the program. Our mountain weather forecasts are used for planning purposes by various cooperators, and also form the basis for our avalanche forecasts. Obviously a primary goal of all the cooperators is to prevent avalanche accidents, which is facilitated in many ways by use of both the mountain weather and avalanche forecasts. Direct public use of the mountain weather and avalanche forecasts certainly reduces activity in the mountains at inappropriate times.

The Office Work - Forecasting And Dissemination

The NWAC mountain weather and avalanche forecast area includes the Cascade Mountains from the international border south to Mt Hood, a distance of about 225 miles, and the Olympic Mountains. Our mountain weather forecasts include a short discussion of synoptic and mesoscale features; 2-day forecasts of cloud cover and precipitation trends, freezing/snow levels for a variety of areas, 24 and 48 hour precipitation for 13 specific locations; wind speed and direction at varied elevations; and a more general 3-5 day forecast of cloud cover and precipitation trends with freezing/snow levels. This forecast is prepared between 3:30 and 7 am (ouch!) each day during the usual 5 to 6 month winter season. If you haven't seen an example of these forecasts, you should be able to check one out on our Web page (www.nwac.noaa.gov) by the time you read this in the Review. We also do spot forecasts for the WhistlerBlackcomb ski areas in south B.C. and Crater Lake National Park in the south Oregon Cascades.

One might ask, doesn't the NWS issue weather forecasts for the Cascades and Olympics? The NWS does issue forecasts for those areas. Our niche is created by the demand for more detailed mountain weather forecasts than the NWS is mandated to issue. Program cooperators also seem to appreciate being able to discuss the forecasts with us instead of listening to a recording. And certainly some advanced level of mountain weather forecasting is generally required in order to produce avalanche forecasts, but this is especially true in an area like the Cascades where dramatic temperature rises can quickly produce avalanches. I suppose the NWAC is unique in that we prepare and issue mountain weather forecasts on a regular basis. The data sparse area over the Pacific Ocean adds an element of difficulty to weather forecasting in general for our area, although satellite and aircraft observations have become quite sophisticated. Most weather forecasters will claim that their forecasting area is the most difficult in the world -and we're no different (except that here it's true!).

We issue avalanche forecasts strictly for back country areas and include a brief zone forecast of the danger rating, a snowpack analysis with reasons for the snowpack structure, followed by a 2-day forecast of expected changes in snow stability resulting from anticipated weather. A third day outlook is added for weekends or holidays. We try to break down the forecasts into
geographical areas having similar avalanche dangers. This typically results in a forecast that varies above and below a specific elevation, with additional variations between the west and east sides of the Cascades and between the north and south. Other specific locations with noteworthy dangers may also be listed. We prepare the avalanche forecast between 7 and 9 am each day during the winter season. Later morning hours during the winter are usually filled by other activities such as responding to requests for data or other information, ironing out computer problems or perhaps a news interview. As a normal part of office shifts an afternoon update of the mountain weather and avalanche forecasts is usually issued between 1 and 3 pm.

A difficulty with this schedule is that in order to produce the mountain weather forecast by 7 am, we don't issue the avalanche forecast until 8:309 am, which is rather late for many public users, especially those getting an "alpine start". Avalanche forecasts are available as soon as possible at USES offices and ski areas those heading into the back-country. Otherwise, to compensate and in order to have the freshest possible information available for the public at the most appropriate time, we try to make sure that the avalanche forecast is up-to date in the afternoon, so that people can look it over in the evening before possibly departing on trips early the next day.

A difference I have noticed between our avalanche forecasts and those issued by other centers is that ours is typically worded in a more formal style. Perhaps this is because our mountain weather forecasts follows a rather strict, predetermined format, and the avalanche forecast is naturally worded in a somewhat similar manner. I personally feel that the context of our avalanche forecasts allows a pretty good mix of friendliness and formality, but we have to be careful that it doesn't seem detached or impersonal.

Our effort to stay abreast of developments in weather forecasting technology is well facilitated by our colocation with the NWS in Seattle. The NWS is at the forefront of these developments and is always playing with new forecasting tools such as mesoscale weather models, display methods, and radar or other types of profiling equipment. Another way that the NWS has been very supportive of the NWAC is by allowing us to participate in their training activities. As a part of this effort we all got to spend a lovely month in Norman, OK during the 1995 summer season learning about the NWS NEXRAD radars.

An essential part of our daily regimen of data ingestion are the daily weather snowpack observations called in to us by WSDOT, NPS, and PNSAA personnel. A partial list of those who might call us would include Jon Andrews and Mike Stanford at Stevens Pass, Craig Wilbour and John Barker at Snoqualmie Pass, Doug Blanchard at Crystal Mountain, and Stu Hill at Mt Hood Meadows. As Bruce Tremper mentioned in the autumn issue of the Review, we have to be careful about how conditions in normally controlled areas may extrapolate to back-country areas. We also try to cultivate a reason
able but not overwhelming number of backcountry snowpack observations. All of these calls can make for a busy phone on what might otherwise be a quiet winter morning.

We have developed a lot of ways of sending out the forecasts, which adds to the busy mornings on forecast shifts. Dissemination methods include the Forest Service computer network, the NWAC computer bulletin board, our two 24-hour telephone recordings in Seattle and Portland, the NWS AFOS computer system, faxes to retail stores and posting to our Web site.

Lets do the numbers: calls to our phone recordings have averaged about 25,000 annually the past few years while visits to our Web site snowballed from about 7000 during the 95/96 season to almost 40,000 during the 96/97 season. We also try to get out and do avalanche awareness presentations to groups that request the service, typically 15-25 groups per season. A change this season is that we are interacting with and giving presentations to snowmobile groups. With my own particular interest in quiet backcountry skiing experiences, this has been a bit hard to swallow, but I'm trying to be openminded about it.


The Great Outdoors
Weather Instruments And Other Field Work

We maintain or help maintain 17 automated weather systems in the Cascades and Olympics (16 and 1 respectively) that support NWAC operations (see figure). For logistical reasons, many of the systems are located at ski areas. Individual instruments record air temperature at several elevations, wind speed and direction from a ridge-top location, and relative humidity, precipitation and snow depth from more sheltered locations. Most of the instruments store and send data through CR-10 dataloggers which are polled automatically by our computer. After 20 years of work on these systems, Mark is definitely the guru in this department, Kenny and I are somewhere on the steep part of the learning curve in ability to help him out.

I should say that in my opinion 17 systems is a lot of sites! In my 4 seasons of work here, I still have not visited all portions of each of the 17 weather systems. Mark seems to be tireless when it comes to maintaining the sites, occasionally prodding us to drive to Mt Hood and back in one day to do maintenance, a 9 hour drive round trip, not to mention the usual several hours of work at the site. These instruments require a significant investment of time and effort to maintain which means there is less time for other types of field work (AKA pit time or ski time). Usually our trips to the mountains involve a combination of work on weather instruments and a look at the snowpack.

One other point I would like to add (in case work at the NWAC seems to good to be true): as a rather dedicated back-country skier, I have noticed that the long days in the office and in the mountains on the job have slightly decreased my enthusiasm for backcountry skiing on my own time. I guess I can at least do a better job of picking quality ski days by being more in touch with weather and snow conditions.

Funding And Some Other Instability Issues

Over the last several years the annual budget for the NWAC has run about $185,000 and most of this has been shared by the federal and state governments, with the USFS and the WSDOT each contributing about $80,000. The remainder was paid by the NPS ($17,000), the PNSAA and ski schools ($5,000), the WSPRC (about $3,000), along with some other contributions from local television stations, etc. In fiscal 1997, we ran into budget difficulties due mainly to decreasing contributions from the state. In order to help solve the problem, the PNSAA doubled their contribution to $10,000. Here in fiscal 1998 we face a more significant shortfall due to a further lowered contribution from the state and currently have funding only through next February. Fortunately some local outdoor groups (including The Mountaineers, the Washington Alpine Club, the Washington Ski Touring Club, the Boeing Alpine club) and the PNSAA have responded and are actively pursuing funding options. They have been down to the state capitol to promote our cause and appear to be in the preliminary stages of forming a nonprofit "Friends of the NWAC".

A Last Note About ISSW 1998

After some initial attempts to arrange to have the workshop at Hood River, Oregon, we have decided to hold the workshop at Sun River, Oregon, instead.

Unfortunately we had to change due to potentially inadequate facilities at Hood River. But the dates remain set for 27 September to 1 October 1998 and Sun River promises to be a nice facility A great group is already working on this including Rich Marriott, Bill Williamson, Lee Redden, Sue Ferguson, Roland Emetaz and Paul Baugher. We hope to see you there, for more information you can check out the ISSW web page at: www issw noaa.gov ngate

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 2, DECEMBER 1997
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA