PREDICTING MOTHER NATURE’S MOOD SWINGS
With more rainy days than snowy ones, there’s no doubt that the winter of 2014-’15 was a tumultuous year for skiers and snowboarders in Whistler. It was an especially trying season for Whistler Blackcomb’s weather forecasting and public relations teams, dealing with rapidly changing freezing levels and frustrated guests. Amid this meteorological chaos, several media sources including Whistler Traveller were invited to tour Whistler Blackcomb’s weather forecasting facilities. We got the inside scoop on how forecasters gather weather information and prepare daily forecasts, and saw for ourselves that there’s no smoke and mirrors. But even with a team of experts on hand, predicting mountain weather can be like bit like staring into a blizzard.
It may be a surprise to learn that the daily weather forecast on Whistler Blackcomb’s website is not created by the resort’s own forecasting team. Instead, the information is provided by Environment Canada and RWDI Consulting Engineers and Scientists, a company that supplies weather data to outdoor operations based on computer modelling. Getting weather data externally ensures the information comes from a source whose only interest is being accurate.
“To be totally transparent and to have people trust the forecast, we need to have it come from a third party that doesn’t financially gain from having a more favourable forecast,” says Chelsea Moen, Whistler Blackcomb public relations supervisor. “The forecaster that we hire doesn’t care if it’s a good or bad forecast.”
Whistler Blackcomb weighs this external data against its own staff ’s findings and if necessary, can request updates for better accuracy. Some aspects of forecasting are handled internally. Every morning a lead forecaster starts up each mountain gathering snow, wind and temperature data from various points. One of the biggest parts of the forecaster’s job is deciding what areas of the mountains are safe to open for staff and guests. No one goes anywhere without their go-ahead that the snowpack and avalanche conditions are safe.
Snow-depth measurements are taken at Pig Alley, a wind-protected zone located at a mi-delevation on Whistler Mountain. Skiers and riders should bear in mind that this produces an accurate average, but wind and other factors inevitably create variances in different zones and elevations. Once WB’s forecasters have collected their data, it is compared with Environment Canada’s and RWDI’s information, and if required, updates are made. “The most accurate and up-to-date ‘Snowphone’ message or ‘ Today on the Mountains’ report will be ready by 7:30 am, because at that point we’ve had a chance to connect with the forecasters,” Moen says.
Despite everyone’s daily efforts, WB forecasters have plenty of challenges with which to contend. Weather forecaster Kevin Sibbalt says Whistler’s location leaves the resort susceptible to weather coming in from all sides.
“We have a lot of influences; we’re close to the coast, so we’re very much affected by the Pacific. Weather is generally coming from the west, whether southwest, or northwest or westerly; all of those change freezing levels and fluctuate temperatures,” Sibbalt says. “Our moist systems are generally from the south and southwest. We’re still affected by northerly outflows, and can even have systems come up from Montana, Oregon and Washington State.”
With so many factors at play, forecasting freezing levels can be particularly tough beyond a short window.
“Six hours, 12 hours, even 24 hours, we can be relatively accurate. Thirty-six hours, 48 hours, those are getting tricky … three, five, 10 days, you’re going with models that meteorologists are producing,” adds Sibbalt.
Another challenge is the fact that Whistler and Blackcomb mountains cover a huge area. Doug MacFarlane, mountain operations manager, says microclimates can produce very different conditions within the resort’s boundaries. So how do they narrow it down to the simplified forecasts provided to the public? They base it on what’s happening outside the Roundhouse or Rendezvous.
“For a public forecast … ideally we’re telling you what it’s like when you get out of the gondola, what you’re going to encounter,” MacFarlane says. From there, skiers should expect some variation as they travel to different aspects and elevations, he says.
In response to last season’s challenging weather, a few changes were made to the online forecast. For example, last season RWDI’s data didn’t differentiate precipitation as snow or rain. It did provide a freezing level, but since many people don’t understand what “freezing level” means, they wouldn’t notice that incoming “snow” may be expected to turn into rain at an elevation of 2,900 m, well above the 2,200 m peaks of Whistler or Blackcomb.
After discussion with RWDI, the resort’s forecast was altered. It is now more reflective of the specific elevation of Whistler and Blackcomb, so if the freezing level is below 2,200 m, any precipitation will be accurately described as rain. Also, as of last February, the daily forecast now describes two different zones, one for alpine areas above 1,850 m and a separate valley forecast for sub-alpine areas. Ideally, the changes will make it easier for the public to understand and prepare for what’s happening on the mountains.
With plenty of buzz in the media this past fall forecasting a mild winter because of a strong El Niño, combining with a “blob” effect (a warm patch of water in the Pacific Ocean concentrated off the West Coast), skiers and snowboarders might be wondering if the resort has any strategies in the works to ensure a consistent season. Sibbalt explained El Niño and La Niña aren’t consistent weather patterns, and without the ability to accurately forecast months or years ahead, it doesn’t make sense to plan a ski season around long-range weather predictions.
“To say ‘it’s going to be El Niño and have this kind of weather event,’ well, there’s strong ones, there’s light ones, moderate ones and there’s no real rules even within those parameters. Is it really going to change what we do day to day, or how we plan for winter? Not really,” Sibbalt says.
Whatever the weather, you’ll know just as well as Whistler Blackcomb’s on-hill staff what to expect on the slopes each day.
In any conditions, your best bet is to choose what zones to explore based on the day’s forecast, throw on a few layers under your trusty outerwear and get ready for a fun day in the mountains.
Before you ski or ride, get the scoop on daily temperatures, snow and weather conditions at whistlerblackcomb.com, or call the Snowphone at 1-604-687-7507 or 604-932-4211.