Weather Fore­cast­ing


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 whistlerblack­, or call the Snow­phone at 1-604-687-7507 or 604-932-4211.

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