Inside Look at Crystal Mountain Weather Reporting
Ever wonder how Crystal Mountain comes up with the snowfall totals you see on its website and hear on its snowphone recording?
It actually starts the morning of the PREVIOUS day when ski patrollers clear the snow away from automated and manual stakes that measure how much new snow accumulated in the previous 24-hour period. The stakes are part of Snow Science Study Plots that exist primarily for forecasting avalanche hazard. They’re hidden out of the way in fairly wind-protected spots in the Base area and in Green Valley, although they can sometimes become wind affected. (There are also smaller, auxiliary “test” plots located in various places in the ski area.)
The study plots also have “Total Snow” stakes that measure the season’s accumulated snow pack. There are 2 versions of both the stakes:
Data from the manual stakes get written down each morning by ski patrollers and are used to check the accuracy of the electronic instrumentation. (Patrollers also record snow accumulation from each storm event, surface & 20cm deep snow temperatures, and the water-weight equivalency of the new snow, which are used in forecasting avalanche hazard.)
The automated stakes transmit a sonar-like signal from a device up above the snow pointed straight down. The resulting electronic snow depth data travels via the internet to the Northwest Weather & Avalanche Center (NWAC) administered by the US Forest Service. (Instrumentation at the summit also transmits wind speeds and direction, air temperature and humidity.) Crystal Mountain’s website software mines pertinent data fields from the NWAC data, and that’s what you see when you check Crystal’s website! Pretty simple, huh?
Each morning, ski patrollers visit the Base study plot, and the Green Valley study plot except when high winds keep the lifts from operating, to record measurements and clear accumulated snow. Every hour the telemetry data automatically updates with the newest input from the sensors.
So contrary to popular myth, the numbers reported on the website and snowphone are not made up by the Marketing department. They come directly from the telemetry machines. The rare exception is when the internet connection or the machines malfunction, in which case the Marketing staff input the measurements recorded by ski patrollers.
Q. So why does what I see on the internet when I wake up in the morning differ from what I experience when I hit the slopes? Well, there can be a few reasons:
1. You probably aren’t (and shouldn’t be) skiing or riding in the weather plots. Since our measurements are for scientific study and avalanche forecasting, we record them in “neutral” locations sheltered from the sun and wind, not out on the open slopes where you’re probably making your turns.
2. The weather can change a lot between when you first wake up to check the internet, and 2-3 hours later when you unload the upper lifts. Snow fall accumulates, snow on the ground settles-out becoming shallower and denser, small “sluff” avalanches occur, wind speed and direction changes, and the Sun comes out making things warmer and wetter.
3. Snow depth varies by elevation so there may be a lot more snow in Northway Bowl than there is in The Meadow.
4. There can be a big difference between powder snow that’s on top of yesterday evening’s groomer-compacted snow, and powder snow that’s on top of more powder snow that no one’s touched for a few days. So it’s good to know the history: Was it icy or warm yesterday? Was the upper mountain closed due to wind? Was it a busy weekend day or a sparsely-attended weekday?