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Olympics

Issued: 6:00 PM PST Thursday, March 21, 2019
by Dennis D'Amico

While the danger surrounding wet snow avalanches is trending down with a change in the weather, it isn't quite over yet. Monitor the surface snow for changing conditions and head to lower angled terrain without overhead exposure if wet surface snow becomes ankle deep.

Danger Scalei
  • No Rating (Info Avail)
  • Low (1)
  • Moderate (2)
  • Considerable (3)
  • High (4)
  • Extreme (5)

Snow and Avalanche Discussion

Friday morning will make it about a week without a serious refreeze (wow!). This follows on the heels of 6 weeks of below-normal temperatures that produced a layered winter snowpack. The Pacific Northwest is undergoing a major spring transition.

NPS rangers saw evidence of a widespread small wet loose cycle that occurred during the week. Believe it or not, our layer of buried surface hoar (3/7) is still visible on shaded northerly aspects near and likely above treeline. It is unlikely that you will trigger a shallow slab avalanche on this layer, but continue to dig 4-6" below the snow surface and look for this layer on northerly aspects. Consider the consequences of a small slab avalanche before committing to a slope.   

Despite the week of warm weather, zero wet slab avalanches were observed in the Hurricane Ridge area on Friday by NPS staff. This does not mean they didn't occur somewhere out of view, but it does suggest wet slabs were less prevalent than what occurred in the Cascades this week.  

Steer clear of traveling on or below cornices. Many have melted back or have already released but mild temperatures and potential morning sunshine will continue to stress cornices once again.

Forecast schedule

For the 2018-19 winter season, avalanche danger ratings will be issued for the Olympics every Friday through Sunday and during mid-week holidays.

During the week, No Rating will be issued but forecasts will include expected conditions and relevant travel advice. While this avalanche forecast is focused on backcountry avalanche conditions expected in the Hurricane Ridge area, we want to hear about your observations from other parts of the Olympics as well.

Avalanche Problems for Friday

Loose Weti

  • Avalanche Problemi
  • Aspect/Elevationi
  • Likelihoodi
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If we get a period of extended sunshine Friday before the clouds thicken and temperatures cool, you may still trigger a loose wet avalanche on any steep slope with wet snow. Even as temperatures cool more quickly near and above treeline, expect wet snow conditions to linger at lower elevations for most of the day.

Monitor the surface snow and recognize that conditions may change very quickly. You can use a pole or your boot to check surface penetration and if it exceeds 6”, seek low-angle slopes or different aspects. The deeper the wet surface snow, the more snow a wet avalanche entrains and the larger and more dangerous they become.  Be especially cognizant of the consequences of even a small avalanche around terrain traps like gullies or cliff bands.

If you see evidence of a new or recent wet slab avalanche, dial back your terrain use immediately to deal with the uncertainty surrounding this dangerous and hard to predict avalanche problem. Avoid terrain where avalanches can start, and limit your exposure to where avalanches can run or stop.

 

March 19, 2019

Turning Up The Heat

My how the weather has changed. After nearly six weeks of below average temperatures, spring roared in like a lion. Temperatures March 17-19 soared into the mid-’50s at many of our mountain weather stations. This has been a big change for our cold winter snowpack, and you can see the effects of several days of warm temperatures in the mountains.

 

Temperatures from selected weather stations for the past week. Notice the long stretch of above freezing temps over the last few days. (Dates March 12-19, 2019)

The Loose Wet Avalanche Cycle

A prolonged small loose wet avalanche cycle occurred in some areas March 14-16,  as daytime temperatures crept above freezing. Recent snow from a storm on March 11-12 fueled these generally small avalanches, while thin clouds minimized the impact of the warming trend. Due to their small size and specific locations, the avalanche danger stayed moderate. This initial cycle played out in different areas at different times.

On Sunday, we noticed a marked shift. Poor overnight refreezes, continued warming temperatures and clear skies finally tipped the balance. Loose wet avalanches on Sunday afternoon began to grow larger and run farther in some locations. Avalanche conditions became dangerous. Subsequent similar days allowed this cycle to impact higher elevation terrain and move onto more shaded aspects. As of Tuesday, we’re still very much in the middle of this cycle.

 

Loose wet slides hit the groomed road near Blewett Pass. Photo: Matt Primomo

Why Wet Slabs? And Why Now?

Here in the NW we're used to seeing wet slabs associated with rain on snow events, but we don’t always see them as part of a spring shedding cycle. So, what’s different this year?

As the loose wet avalanche cycle ratcheted up a notch Sunday afternoon, this also began to indicate that more water was moving in the snowpack. Over February and early March, several winter storms formed a cold and layered mid-winter snowpack. How would these old layers respond to the influx of water? This is one of the more difficult questions in avalanche forecasting. The first indications came over March 16 and 17 with a few reports of isolated wet slab avalanches. Would these be the precursors to a more widespread cycle? Well, we're still waiting to see. We know there have been several days now of completely above freezing temperatures and the snowpack is still cold and layered. With a lot of uncertainty about the possibility of wet slabs, we’re approaching any avalanche terrain with a high degree of suspicion and dialing back when, where, and how we travel.

A wet slab from Mt St Helens, Sunday, March 17, 2019. Photo: NWAC public observation page.

Variability in Time and Space

So what does this all mean? Well, two things come to mind. 1: You may experience a wide variety of conditions depending on where you travel. Changes in aspect, elevation, and feature can lead to changes in sun exposure, overnight freezing, and timing of the thaw. Other than steep due north aspects, the sun and temperature appear to be finding every snow surface. Conditions will change rapidly during the day. Don’t expect slopes you travel on in the morning to be the same by mid-day. That leads us to point 2. Be informed, monitor conditions, and prepare to respond to changing conditions. Use the Weather and Avalanche Forecast to make sure you are up to date on what we think of the current and forecasted conditions. As you travel, make observations. How is the snow responding to the heat, sun, etc? Don’t forget to think about the slopes above your head. Expect conditions to change quickly, and plan for travel options that allow you to avoid potentially dangerous overhead slopes.

A Shout Out to Low Elevation Snowpacks

Cold temperatures in February built deep low elevation snowpacks, especially east of the Cascades. This snowpack has been very weak. As it becomes warm and wet, you may see odd, full depth avalanches occur. Don’t let your low elevation fool you. Just because it’s not a big mountain avalanche path doesn’t mean it can’t slide.

Full depth slabs next to full depth loose wet avalanches. Swakane Canyon near Wenatchee. Photo: Matt Primomo

When Will This End?

Transitions like this take time. Don’t be in a rush. Until the snowpack undergoes a solid refreeze, continue to be leery of avalanche terrain. We’ll keep monitoring the snow and the weather to keep you informed.

No Corresponding Mountain Weather Forecast Available