By Natalie Carpenter
Special to The SUN
When collaborations happen between public and private entities, beneficial things can happen. Such is the case with a local relationship of entities that resulted in a near real-time weather station at the top of the Continental Divide that now provides data useful to both road crews and backcountry snow enthusiasts. The station was made possible through the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Wolf Creek Ski Area and Skywerx, an Internet service provider based in Pagosa Springs.
A local resident for 20 years and the current executive director of the American Avalanche Association, Mark Mueller came to Pagosa Springs in 1992 after 15years with the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol. When he relocated to accept a position as a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the organization was just beginning a partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). The role of CAIC forecasters with the Department of Transportation is to keep mountain highways open and travelers out of danger.
According to Mueller and the CAIC website, the overall purpose of the center is, “to minimize the economic and human impact of snow avalanches on recreation, tourism, commerce, industry and the citizens of Colorado.” The need for an entity such as the CAIC was based on the statistic that since 1950, avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard. Colorado accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths in the United States. The first CAIC forecasting for CDOT began in Silverton for the 1992/1993 snow season on Red Mountain Pass. The Pagosa Springs CAIC office and an Eisenhower tunnel forecasting office were created the following year. Forecasters have the objective of recognizing road hazards due to avalanches and dealing with the hazard if possible.
“The goal of CAIC CDOT forecasters,” Mark Mueller clarified,“is to keep snow off of the highway.” He explained it is a common public misconception that when avalanche work is done near highways, it is to trigger an avalanche that will cover the road and then be cleared. “Most often, we do indeed trigger slides,” said Mueller, “but they don’t usually reach the highway.”
By maintaining snowslides in identified danger areas, forecasters work to prevent a larger avalanche that could be big enough to reach a highway and put travelers in harm’s way. Mueller and his team are aware of the inconveniences caused to drivers when their route is delayed due to avalanche control, especially on roads that lead to ski terrain. The safety of travelers is their number one priority.
In addition to the CDOT forecasters who work on monitoring slide hazards on state highways, CAIC backcountry forecasters work diligently to cover Colorado backcountry terrain, which is split into 10 zones throughout the state. The areas around Pagosa Springs and Wolf Creek are in the Southern San Juan zone. CAIC forecasters also work on a mission of avalanche education for snowshoers, skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and others who use the Colorado backcountry for winter recreation.
The resources Mueller uses to determine snow conditions and the likelihood of avalanches that might end up on a highway include online reporting from several weather stations, many miles in his CDOT pickup truck, and Mueller’s own skis that take him directly into the field for getting a hands-on experience for the actual state of the snow pack. The 2011/2012 snow season passed with a gap in his arsenal of tools when a weather station at the top of Wolf Creek ski area went offline just before winter. Mueller was able to use information from another CDOT reporting station located on the east side of the pass at the snow shed just below the ski area, but because of the lower and relatively sheltered location on the side of the pass that doesn’t receive as much snow, a high-altitude station was greatly missed.
On Nov. 9, a new wireless station began transmitting near real-time reporting from a location that provides weather data used for avalanche forecasting information not only for the highway near the ski area, but for the in-bounds ski terrain at Wolf Creek and the vast area of backcountry terrain in our area of the south San Juan mountains. The new weather station is attached to the top of Wolf Creek Ski Area’s Treasure chairlift, at an altitude approaching 12,000 feet. Mueller climbed to the top of the tower to access the station on Nov. 8, just hours before the first storm of the season hit the area. The task was to make one final adjustment to a weep hole on an antenna. The equipment went live the following day and began transmitting data to a receiving tower across the highway on Lobo peak where it is now accessible via an Internet link.
The Treasure Lift CAIC station provides critical information on wind speed and direction, temperature and relative humidity at an altitude and location that is useful for area forecasting. Actual snowfall information is reported at separate locations by SNOTEL (snow telemetry) weather stations on each mountain pass. Cumulative snowfall is measured by projecting a sonar beam downward and recording how long the beam takes to bounce back. The higher the snowfall amount, the shorter the time it takes for the beam to travel.
The collaboration required to make CAIC wireless weather reporting possible involved Wolf Creek Ski Area’s donation of the tower location, monthly Internet access donated by Skywerx, and technical advice and time provided by Pagosa Springs’ Justin Davis, one of the four owners of Skywerx. A large Skywerx tower on top of Lobo peak provides a direct line of sight back to their Pagosa Springs tower on Oakbrush hill, resulting in a wireless high speed connection for the CAIC weather station.
“The free Internet access ... means I can use my laptop or smartphone to instantly access the data which is scheduled to transmit hourly.” Mueller said. Because snowfall amount is not the only factor to be considered when forecasting avalanche danger and location, the timely wind speed, wind direction and temperature that will be measured from the Treasure Lift station is a critical piece of information that Mueller will use in his forecasting.
“When predicting avalanches, it’s not only how much snow falls, it’s how it fell,” explained Mueller. Blowing wind can result in locations with snow depths far greater than the average measurement for an area. But snow amount and wind direction aren’t the only significant factors.
“Temperature and temperature trends are as important as wind speed and direction for predicting an avalanche,” Mueller added.
Water content also plays a role in how the accumulating snow crystals will adhere to the existing layer of snow, so having an accurate and timely measurement of temperature, wind speed, wind direction and relative humidity from the new CDOT station will help Mueller make better decisions about where to look for anomalous snow packs that may need to be controlled before they accumulate more snow and put highway travelers in danger.
The upgraded reporting station installed at Wolf Creek Ski Area ties in to the CAIC database, allowing Mueller to see trends and create historical reports that were not previously available without manual data input. The information from all reporting stations that he accesses each morning during snow season beginning at 5 a.m. help him determine where in the field he needs to be in order to assess danger areas.
“I’m out on skis every day it snows,” Mueller said, which is usually 90 or more days, depending on the winter. Mueller has specific spots off of the highways on his route where he skis out to established observation sites. He chooses areas to measure snow based on their similarity to the areas that may slide, but would be too dangerous to access on skis. “I choose areas that are similar, but safe,” Mueller emphasized. “The point is to get actual measurements and a real feel for what the snow is doing. I choose an area big enough to be representative, but is still safe.”
Measurements for avalanche forecasting include slope angle and orientation to the compass (aspect), type of snow crystals, how deep each layer of snow is and how the layers are adhering to each other. Combining that information with station reports is what Mueller uses to determine if any avalanche control is necessary. When he does determine that blasting is needed to release weak snow layers before they become hazards, CDOT must mobilize a team of a minimum of eight workers with duties ranging from setting up stopping points for the delay to retrieving and setting up the Howitzer gun that is used to fire live rounds towards coordinates that were deemed trouble spots.
“Remember, the goal of CDOT is to keep slides off of the road,” Mueller said.
In addition to the reporting gleaned from the CAIC weather station by forecasters, measurements will be visible to the public on the CAIC website under the Southern San Juan list of stations. The list is sorted by altitude beginning at the lowest. For our zone, the new station will be at the bottom. Mueller encourages backcountry travelers to use the reporting and forecasting offered on the CAIC website. Weather forecasts on the site are updated twice daily and backcountry conditions are reported by 7 a.m. Backcountry skiers will find detailed avalanche danger reports or warnings, as well as be able to submit their own observations.
“The CAIC site offers a great tool for the public to share their snow observations,” Mueller said. By taking a bit of time to fill in a form on the site after a backcountry outing, others will be able to learn about the snow conditions in a given area, giving them a much better picture of what the snowpack is like and allowing them to make smart decisions about what areas to visit or avoid. Observation reports provided by the public are also used by CAIC forecasters and provide more eyes on the snow.
With the new wireless weather station, CDOT road staff, highway drivers and visitors to the southern San Juan mountains have yet another tool for keeping abreast of snow conditions to ensure safety during the Colorado snow season. To continue the CAIC goal of education, Mueller will present a free avalanche awareness talk on Thursday, Nov. 29, from 7-9 p.m. at the County Extension Building at the Archuleta County Fairgrounds. Anyone who enters backcountry snow terrain is invited to attend.
For more information on the CAIC and to view weather or avalanche reports, visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center site by going to Avalanche.org and clicking on the Colorado icon.