The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) promotes safety by helping reduce the impacts of avalanches and adverse mountain weather on recreation, industry and transportation in Washington, and northern Oregon through data collection, mountain weather and avalanche forecasting and education.
To achieve this mission, the NW Avalanche Center:
assists a variety of snow safety and snow maintenance programs by providing and analyzing useful weather, snow and avalanche data, and by producing and distributing a variety of mountain weather and avalanche forecast products.
assists back country travelers by providing current information on snowpack structure and avalanche danger, and by forecasting expected changes in snow and avalanche conditions.
The professional and highly dedicated mountain meteorologists and avalanche specialists at NWAC are on duty from September through June, issuing twice daily forecasts from about mid-November through mid-April and special statements as warranted in the early Fall and mid-late Spring.
Since its inception, the NWAC has been administered by the US Department of Agriculture-Forest Service. To help enhance its mission of education and provide the public and cooperators with information on NWAC operations and summaries of each winter season, NWAC staff prepare annual reports each spring. These reports provide a wealth of information on Northwest snowpack, weather and avalanches for past years, beginning in the 2000/01 winter. Hard copies of annual reports for prior years are also available going back to about 1994, and it is hoped that these earlier reports may be digitized and available on-line in the future.
The Avalanche Center is cooperatively funded by a variety of federal, state and private agencies. Important cooperators include the Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (including Snowmobile and Snowpark Programs), National Weather Service, National Park Service, Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, Ski Washington, NW Winter Sports Foundation, Friends of the Avalanche Center and others.
During its research phase of operation in 1976-78, the Avalanche Center annual operating costs were ~$81,500, and these costs were shared by WSDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. This operation provided short summary weather forecasts for three major mountain passes and a short avalanche forecast for about 4 months/year.
However, the program now provides detailed twice daily meso-scale weather and avalanche forecasts for all the Washington Cascades and Olympics, and northern Oregon Cascades—-or together for an area larger than Switzerland. These regularly scheduled forecasts are routinely available for 6 months/year, with spot verbal forecasts prepared as needed during rescue or other emergency situations. NWAC forecasters also prepare daily weather forecasts for WSDOT avalanche control and maintenance personnel for Chinook, Cayuse and Washington pass closure and opening operations in the early fall and mid-late spring. The program also manages the most comprehensive real-time mountain weather data network in the US.
The total of Direct (actual revenues received) and Indirect (in-kind) contributions was approximately $600,000 in FY11 (2010-11 winter season) and in FY12 (2011/12 season). This means that each cooperator and the public receive the benefits of a program much greater than the individual Direct contributions would suggest.
The NWAC is housed at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Seattle, Washington, at the Western Regional Headquarters of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) at Sandpoint. The National Weather Service provides in-kind contributions of office space, computer, weather and satellite data access, and dissemination services.
To help minimize cooperator costs, three professional avalanche/weather forecasters are employed for 9-10 months/year, with a fourth forecaster intermittently available for spot forecasting during the winter months. Non-forecast season duties include planning and maintenance of the data network and related services (including web site development), program administration, education, cooperation with program cooperators, and data application of new weather and avalanche technology to meet program goals.
Direct Program Benefits
Avalanche Accidents and Public Snow Safety
Soaring back country usage during the last 20 years (cross country skiing and then snowmobilers and snowboarders) has produced an annual average avalanche fatality toll in the United States that has risen from 11 to approximately 29 deaths/year (5-yr moving average), with 32 fatalities recorded in 1998/99, 33 in 2000/01 and 35 in 2001/02— all setting unfortunate modern-day records at the time (since 1950). This trend toward increased numbers of avalanche fatalities nationwide continued in 2007/08 and 2009/10, when new records of 36 US fatalities were reported. See the avalanche accident information section of the web site for further information.
Although the NW fatality total of 9 during the 2007-08 winter is the most since 7 were reported in the winter of 2003-04, overall the Northwest fatality toll has only increased slightly since the 1990's and remains at an average of ~3/year (10-yr total of 29 fatalities for Washington and Oregon from 2001/02 through 2010/11).
It is believed that avalanche education and forecasts have resulted in a significant reduction in both avalanche accidents and resulting rescue efforts and costs, hence stabilizing or reducing the number of avalanche fatalities despite major increases in winter back country use and recreation.
There are many documented instances where travelers canceled trips or rescheduled timing or locations of planned trips based on forecast information.
There is also significant documented evidence of popular public response to the program—despite a slow but significant decrease in usage of the NWAC Avalanche Forecast Phone Hotlines from 20-30,000 calls annually during the 1990's to less than 3,000 annually more recently, access of NWAC forecast and data products via the Internet has exploded. Over 1.1 million hits on NWAC avalanche and mountain weather products were recorded via the web in 2000/01, over 1.9 million hits in 2002/03, ~ 2.67 million hits in 2004/05, almost 4.2 million hits in 2005/06 and over 20 million hits in 2007/08--all just on mountain weather and avalanche forecasts and data (however it must be noted that a significant percentage of the most recent hit totals has been fueled by web gadgets that continually update hourly weather information for the user). More recently, with accesses by automated web bots or gadget access filtered out, during the last two years (2011/11 & 2011/12) of NWAC forecasting, the web site received an average of 20-22,000 unique web visits/week, ranging from about 15,000 to over 60,000/week, with between 1.6 and 1.8 million site visits/yr and over 3.3 million page views/yr. This web access stemmed from a combination of direct access (~27-32%), referred access (links from other sites, ~48-53% ) and search engine access (~15-20%).
Highway and Ski Area Maintenance and Snow Safety
Washington State Department of Transportation claims considerable annual savings through usage of the program.
WSDOT estimated that the program saved the state approximately $180,000 in 1977/78 and over $330,000 in 1986/87 in direct maintenance costs, lower closure times and reduced public impact. More recently, a 1997 WSDOT study indicated that Puget Sound area businesses lose a total of $485,000 per hour of pass closure (for Snoqualmie Pass only), with an estimated $750,000/hour of lost revenues in 2001 (economist study, Seattle PI, December 2001). This means that a total of about 16 million dollars is lost by local are businesses for every day of I-90 pass closure (other concurrent pass closures would increase this figure). Such a figure underscores the economic importance of a reliable and accurate avalanche and mountain weather forecasting program. These figures do not include the increased safety margin for highway travelers owing to a more effective and responsive avalanche control and highway maintenance program.
The ski industry (PNSAA and NW ski schools) continue to claim significant benefits in daily area operation, school and work planning, lift operations, and snow safety programs.
Forest Service personnel also allege more efficient maintenance and grooming of popular cross country and snowmobile trails as a direct result of NWAC forecasts.
NWAC forecast staff present a variety of avalanche, weather and snow safety seminars which educate the public and cooperators. During this past year (2011/12) NWAC and its important non-profit support group, the Friends of the NW Weather and Avalanche Center (FOAC) provided avalanche educational programs that reached almost 3,000 attendees, and during the last 16 years, almost 30,000 people have attended avalanche and weather presentations by forecast staff and FOAC instructors. The educational page on the web site also contains a significant amount of avalanche information for interested users, and new information is added often.
Forecast staff constantly strive to apply and advance state-of-the-art techniques in weather and avalanche science. To meet this goal forecasters have attended a variety of training sessions or workshops.
Forecasters have also been instrumental in aiding advances in weather sensors and automated weather sensing techniques, as well as contributing significantly to methodology for avalanche and weather forecast dissemination.
To share these techniques and help expand avalanche and/or weather awareness, forecasters give a variety of presentations at International Snow Science Workshops, the National Avalanche School, and other weather and snow seminars.
The NWAC plans, develops, installs and maintains the most comprehensive data network of its kind in the United States. A network of 25 remote automated weather stations (most consisting of at least two or more sub-stations producing a total of 47 separate data sites) telemeter hourly precipitation, snowdepth, temperature, wind and relative humidity data to the NWAC. Most stations are automatically linked to the NWAC web site on the Internet to help provide the public (skiers, snowboarders, hikers, climbers and other recreationists) with real-time weather and avalanche data. The NWAC utilizes the mountain weather data to support more accurate forecasts, and disseminates the information to cooperators for planning, maintenance and avalanche control purposes.