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From supple powder to raging slide

Local weather stations provide forecasters, patrollers, researchers, public with vital data

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

There’s no such thing as safe in the backcountry.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

That’s a fact known all too well by local avalanche forecaster Tom Mattice and ski patroller Brian Davies.

Another fact: Snow can handle a tremendous amount of change, but it also needs time.

Of course, there are other factors that influence snow stability. Things such as temperature, wind and precipitation can turn snow that was once a supple powder ride into a raging slide.

That’s why Mattice and Davies rely on tools to help them make educated predictions and decisions aimed at saving lives, educating the public and avoiding damage in a variety of forms.

One such tool is the Eaglecrest Weather Station, which is maintained and supported by the University of Alaska Southeast and professors and students in the Environmental Sciences Department.

This weather station, located about three-quarters of the way up the mountain, provides data for Eaglecrest ski patrollers — like head patroller Davies. It also acts as a study site for UAS students and faculty researching snow science and another data center in the quiver of City & Borough of Juneau Head Avalanche Forecaster Mattice, who draws data from multiple sites around Juneau to make his predictions.

It’s a station that has been fine tuned since it’s inception in 2003.

First installed on Fish Creek Knob, the unit ran on solar power and functioned much like the current unit today, said UAS Associate Professor Eran Hood.

“Power was an issue,” he said. “Solar didn’t work too well ... communication was another issue, antennas kept getting damaged, and keeping the links solid was a problem.”

But with the help of Davies, a new site was chosen. It’s now located on the ski hill at the bottom of Most, northeast of the top of Ptarmigan Lift.

“Now we have line power and this year we replaced the antennas so now (data) goes directly to the lab. It’s been pretty much running all season,” Hood said.

From the lab, real-time data is sent to a website managed by members of the Environmental Sciences Department and former UAS professor Matt Heavner. Here, data such as current temperature, total snow depth, relative humidity and wind speed are posted. In addition, graphs illustrating snow depth and temperature trends give visitors a visual on how the aforementioned variables are affecting the overall snow pack.

It’s information made available at all hours, which becomes vitally important for people like Mattice and Davies during a major snow event. They’re able to check the rate at which snow is accumulating, even in the middle of the night. If it’s too fast, coupled with a high moisture content and piling on top of a low-density snow pack, red flags will fly.

“It’s a major decision-making tool for me,” Davies said. “It’s another piece of data from which to plan the day for ski patrollers.”

Davies uses it so often, he has an at-home spreadsheet packed with data, past and present.

“I’ve joked with (Hood) many times that I’m the number-one hit counter on his website,” Davies said. “It’s just one of the tools we have, but it’s very useful.”

Another, nearly identical, weather monitoring station went up nearly a year ago on Mount Roberts under the charge of Mattice. The unit is located near the upper Mount Roberts Tram Terminal and was removed over the summer due to area traffic. It sports many of the monitoring devices found on its Eaglecrest counterpart, including a heated tipping bucket, which consists of a small heated cone that collects snow and rain. It’s tied to a balance mechanism which is set to trip at a prescribed weight. How many times it’s tipped in a time period can be directly tied to how much moisture is accumulating.

Mattice builds his forecasts from data on Mount Roberts, Sheep Mountain and the summit of Eaglecrest, as well as information gleaned from the Juneau Airport Weather System.

“They’re all tools,” he said. “It’s the data portion of the tools that I overlay with field work and tomorrow’s forecast.”

Predicting avalanches, ensuring the safety of ski area users and facilitating snow science research are all vital to the citizens of Juneau. But for Mattice, Davies and Hood, the weather stations on Eaglecrest and Mount Roberts provide another vital service to community members.

“Having information available like this builds education into the community,” Mattice said. “In the state of Alaska we’ll never have avalanche forecasting everywhere, so we’re providing people with the tools to do it themselves.”

Those living near the end of Thane Road, for instance, have access to information of vital importance. Snow enthusiasts have a tool for making educated decisions on where and when to head into the backcountry.

“It’s a public resource and a visual ski report,” Hood said.

And it’s a resource Mattice hopes to continue to expand and local partnerships that Hood and Davies hope to strengthen. Both the Eaglecrest and Mount Roberts stations, for instance, were made possible with help from UAS, and equipment donated by the National Weather Service and Haight and Associates. The unit on Mount Roberts also received help from the CBJ and Mattice receives ongoing support from the Mount Roberts Development Corp.

In the future, Mattice said he hopes to expand the monitoring stations to places like Snettisham and Kensington. And when it comes to predicting levels of danger, he said it’s important to remember the backcountry is never 100 percent safe.

“These tools tell us levels of danger,” he said. “There’s a time and place for everything and sometimes you have to reassess and go a different direction.”

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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