Pretty much every backcountry skier and snowboarder in Utah starts their day the same way: by looking at the Utah Avalanche Center’s daily forecast. That makes sense because it’s filled with all sorts of useful information from a detailed explanation of what avalanche hazards to expect, to a handy mountain weather forecast, to some tips for finding safe skiing and riding areas with good snow. But have you ever stopped to wonder how the forecast is made each day? Digging deeper will help provide a better understanding of what you’re reading on the forecast page each day while also helping you gain a bit of appreciation for the all the work that goes into providing a potentially lifesaving forecast.
There are ten forecasters at the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC)—in addition to a host of other folks involved in education, awareness, development and the like. We caught up with forecaster Nikki Champion to hear how a forecast is made and see what a day in the life of a forecaster looks like. Champion had just finished skiing out of what she described as “meters of mank” on a spring day in Provo when we spoke, so rest assured forecasters are out there working hard, not just skiing powder and keeping the secret stashes to themselves.
Writing the avalanche forecast for a given day actually begins a few days earlier. When forecasters aren’t on shift, they still spend their days in the field. “We try to get out in places where other people haven’t been or somewhere there’s been recent avalanche activity or there are layers of interest in the snow we want to check out,” says Champion. "We want to collect pertinent observations about what’s going on in the snowpack, so when we go to actually write the forecast we’re well informed.”
The night before writing the avy forecast, forecasters sift through all the available observations. “In Utah, we receive a ton of public observations, but we also go through observations from our professional users as well as local ski patrols and guide services to get a broader picture of what people have been seeing. Then we’ll check the weather forecast and have a handoff meeting with the forecaster who was on shift to get info and perspective from the person who was in the hot seat,” Champion says.
The day of the forecast starts early. An early morning wakeup—usually around 3:45 a.m.—leads to sitting in front of a computer with a cup of coffee by 4 a.m.. The next hour involves looking at observations that trickled in overnight and checking the data from local weather stations—there are more than 30 in the Wasatch alone—to check temperatures, wind and precipitation totals. Around 5 a.m. observations from ski patrol, including info on natural or explosive triggered avalanches, start to roll in.
Then it’s time to record the 5 a.m. dawn patrol hotline. “The dawn patrol forecast is an abbreviated version of the full forecast, which includes weather info, road closure updates, and the general bottom line about what the hazard is, where it’d located and how it can impact backcountry users,” says Champion.
Once the dawn patrol hotline has been recorded, the forecasters spend the next couple hours writing the full forecast and proofreading before hitting publish by 7 a.m. For the remainder of the day, the forecaster on shift mans the UAC hotline, is the point person for all forecasters in the field and serves as the media incident commander for the day.
Writing the forecast takes a lot of heavy lifting in the predawn hours, but how is the actual danger rating determined? It’s all a bit more objective and data-driven than many people think. “We go in with a general idea about how things are shaping up the night before, but the danger rating comes together as we look at the weather forecast and all the data about recent avalanches. Once we’ve written all the details, we consider the likelihood, distribution and size of avalanches, and then we go straight off the North American danger rating scale. We forecast for snow, not for people when choosing a danger rating, and then we can elaborate on important messaging for backcountry users in the narrative,” Champion says.
“Make reading the forecast part of your daily regimen,” says Champion. “That way even if you aren’t able to be out in the mountains every day, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect on those days when you’re able to ski and ride.”
Visit the Utah Avalanche Center website to learn more about current avalanche conditions, forecasting and all things avalanche.
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