The science of snow forecasting and reporting at Breck

snow-stake-original

There is at least two sides to every story and in the case of snowfall we’re most interested in both the forecast amounts and the actual measurement. Here we’ll see how both disciplines can be measurable and precise, yet challenging to interpret — specifically at Breck.

Snow Forecasting

Snow forecasting, just like with any weather, is typically performed by trained meterologists. And as with most scientific disciplines, meteorology is based on observations of measurable variables and future hypotheses based on known interactions. One simple way to think of weather forecasting is that it’s the study of temperature, air pressure, water vapor, and how these all interact with the landscape (water, mountains, and land).

Forecasters can predict a future combination of cold, moist air with low pressure above the mountains (bringing the air higher up) to create snow. One problem is that these variables all change on a daily (even hourly basis). This is why we all have come to ignore long-term future forecasts. For example, what can appear to be a lot of moisture (snow!) moving west from the Pacific Ocean can ultimately dissipate the next day as the air warms moving down the slope of a mountain range.

According to Joel Gratz, lead meteorologist and founder of OpenSnow.com, 7 – 10 days out means you can “toast to the possibilities”, 4 – 5 days out means you should “clear your schedule”, and only when we are 2 – 3 days away from forecasted powder days should we “pretend we’re getting sick.” His words, not mine (please don’t tell my boss). Learn more about the challenges of snow forecasting in Colorado at opensnow.com.

Snow Reporting

Patio table with snow in Breck

Once we do start to see snow fall, it becomes difficult to determine what to do with the information we receive. First, anyone can reasonably observe the snowfall, we see it every morning on the local news. By simply clearing off a flat surface (like a patio table) and measuring the snow with a ruler at a known interval (after 24 hours) you too can accurately report snow fall. The challenge that you face, which is the same with any mountain or resort like Breck, is your physical location has its own micro-variables to consider.

Does the wind whip around your garage and throw a drift of snow on your back patio? Did the wind on Peak 7 blow from the north and hold the clouds over Peak 8 all afternoon? Are the runs at higher elevations getting more snow than those lower down the mountain? Knowing that the expansive distance, often many miles, that a mountain covers helps understand the challenge of reporting snowfall. Breck gets many questions on how they try to accurately report the snow. Read our Snow Reporting FAQs here.

Another challenge is the interpretation of the numbers. Nearly all mountains report their snowfall numbers across a 24 hour period. For example Breck’s trained snow patrollers read the snow total before 5 AM every day and then clear the reporting surface (to “restart” the count). If we saw a lot of snow fall Monday morning, stop, and then get skied off during the day, a 6-inch report on Tuesday may be confusing. Because of this, Vail Resorts has also instituted a “since closed” total which is the difference measured between 4 PM the day before and 5 AM the next day. In the previous example, a 6-inch 24-hour total and a 1-inch “since closed” total tells us a very different story with that added number.

Where does Breck report snow totals?

Breck ski patrol has been measuring snow from the Back Bowls on Peak 8 near the bottom of the 6 Chair for over 20 years. This means the numbers we see from Breck are consistent over time (one less variable to consider). This location was chosen because of its elevation relative to the rest of the mountain. According to Vail Resorts, the stake is located at 11,237 feet which is in the middle of the elevation covered by the resort (from 9,000 to 13,000 feet).

Be sure to visit the snow stake cam and see the numbers for yourself at breckenridge.com

— Devin Reams