The Man Behind The Powder Buoy
Powder days - The Holy Grail of skiing.
But timing them, especially when you need to fly into town—can be hit or miss. But did you know there’s a way to increase your odds as far as two weeks out thanks to a buoy off the coast of Hawaii?
Our blogger and resident meteorologist, Jodi Saeland shared the story last season and I was blown away. Buoy “pops” frequently line up with snow two weeks later. Recently, I sat down with Michael Ruzek to get the history behind the “Powder Buoy.” Is it science or coincidence? Either way, this info increases the incubation period for the Powder Flu from days to weeks...so grab a calendar and get ready plan your next sick day!
Snow Travelista: How on earth did you notice there was a correlation between a buoy in Hawaii and snow in Utah?
Mr Buoy Himself - Michael: In 2004 a client of mine, that lived half a year on Maui and half a year in Park City, told me about it. He is a surfer and loves skiing and he was an engineer and so like really tech’ed out on all that kind of stuff. Surfers use buoys all the time… And the buoy he was watching was Hawaii Buoy 51101, it is right off of Kauai and he used to watch it for surfing stuff.
However, he noticed that two weeks later, Utah would get hit with storms. He told me about it and I just kind of kept it to myself. It is a good way to plan out my work schedule. If I know that there is a storm possibility two weeks out, I can kind of keep my morning loose a day or two and then shoot out for a couple of hours and then get back to work. And so it’s a way of maintaining work/ life balance.
Then I started talking to friends about it, and then more friends, and I’d post stuff on my Facebook page. Eventually, someone was like, “You should give this thing its own Facebook Page” which I did about three or four years ago.
Snow Travelista: Is there a specific reading your looking for from the buoy you’re looking for?
Michael: I look a chart of swellheads on this buoy. NOAA has all these buoys all over the ocean and they shoot out all sorts of data, but the one that I look out is significant swell height. I look for spikes when this buoy shoots up higher than what it was. Roughly two weeks from that point is when we generally get hit with a storm. It is not exact but it is pretty darn close. It has been super fun to watch over the years, especially this last year.
Snow Travelista: At what point did the Powder Buoy reports really take off with the skiing community?
Michael: It started with the post Jodi Saeland wrote on Ski Utah. Yes it was like two years ago she wrote me an email and she was like, “We got to talk.”
It was funny. So she was like, “All right, my daughter is on the Brighton Ski team and all these parents and now here I am like on TV rush the meteorologist, whatever and all the parents on the Brighton Ski Team follow this buoy and they do not listen to me. So you got to tell me like what is up with this buoy thing?”
Jody was intrigued by it, and she wrote a blog post. I got some traction from that. I was like, yeah, this thing actually kind of works. It’s not super science or anything, but it seems to work pretty well. And in the meantime, I’ve had like Alta, Brighton, Sundance, Ski Patrol, like a bunch of different Ski Patrols, all of it, the Brighton ski team, they’re like huge fans. And then now it’s like 35 to 3600 people all over the country that love this thing and follow the posts. People I don’t even know. So, it’s been really fun actually from that perspective.
Snow Travelista: Have you made some fun connections thanks to the buoy?
Michael: So, I was on a chair… I was on an early ski day a couple of years ago in the Canyons and it was a basic groomer “whatever” day, and I said, “Oh, this is awesome, but I wish it was a powder day.” And one of the guys said, “Well, there’s this buoy and it’s out in the ocean in Hawaii and it says it’s going to snow like next week.” And it turned out to be the head of marketing for Vail. He’d been tracking my buoy reports and I guess they sent out blast through their newsletter about it. I thought that was kind of cool!
Snow Travelista: When the buoy is wrong, is it more often in a good way or a bad way? I ask because we recently ended up with more snow than we expected from the forecast.
Michael: What I’ve noticed in the past is if there is a high-pressure ridge we get a donut hole where storms go around Utah and that’s generally when it will miss. But this has been a pleasant surprise and it definitely snowed more than anyone anticipated.
I also watch the U of U Atmospheric Sciences Department, which looks at all sorts of snow data and whatnot. A guy told me about it at White Pine Touring because he follows the buoy and he’s like, “Oh, you should check out this atmospheric sciences website," so now I use it to validate whether or not storms are in fact coming and how much snow could potentially be coming. So, I’m trying to not only do my two-week outlook, but also add in a little bit of near-term info on how much snow might come. And hopefully not stepping on Evan’s toes too much, but…
Snow Travelista: So what is the perfect mix of forecasts?
Michael: Before I even heard about the “Atmos” at U of U, I would look at the buoy, know that there was a storm out there and keep my schedule open, and then I’d start reading Evan’s stuff three days out or so to dial where I want to ski.
He knows all that deep science at work that I don’t know anything about and has it pretty dialed in. It’s funny, some people have made up this artificial, I won’t say rivalry, but I have noticed some say in comments, “Oh, this buoy pretender guy.”
Snow Travelista: Seriously?
Michael: Yeah, but I’m just having fun. This is all about fun…it isn’t my job. I’m not making any money at this. That’d be nice too, but this is all about having a good time and making light of skiing powder.
I read Evan’s stuff literally every single day, so I think it’s the perfect combo. Like two weeks out, look at the buoy to get your schedule lined up, and then near-term he’s usually pretty much on the line.
Snow Travelista: So to summarize…The Buoy is the farthest out information to review, other than doing it Farmers Almanac style, then you move on to the University or Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences and Wasatch Snow Forecast?
Snow Travelista: You mentioned the Powder Buoy reports being added to the Vail newsletter, how else have businesses been using the information?
Michael: Some lodging places are offering discounts two weeks out on the Powder Buoy website to fill un-booked rooms. They’re like, “Hey, we’ll do storm chaser deals… this perfect timing like two weeks out and perfect timing with the buoy.”
Snow Travelista: Tell us a little bit about you.
Michael: So I moved here in ’93 to go to school at the University of Utah and ski. I met my wife in the ’95 and had two kids. My daughter is seven and she likes to ski. My 10-year-old…I ski with him every Saturday. And he’s a little ripper and it’s super fun. It’s as fun as skiing with friends. We live in Park City and I try to get out as much as I can without wreaking havoc on the balance between family, fun, work, and everything else, so it’s kind of juggling act. The Powder Buoy is a tool I use to help manage it all.
Snow Travelista: So is there a pop on the radar coming up?
Michael: There may be some noise out there but the next buoy action is around St Patrick's day.
If you’re interested in learning more about the science stuff behind the Powder Buoy, read Jodi’s post: ”The Buoy” Near Kauai Predicting Utah Pow. For help planning your next sick day, follow the Powder Buoy on Facebook where Michael posts the most recent “pops” plus some great powder shots. Also keep an eye PowderBuoy.com for deals and other info and links.