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West Slopes Central - Skagit River to South of I-90

Issued: 6:00 PM PST Thursday, March 21, 2019
by Andrew Kiefer

Continued warm weather will maintain the threat of large natural wet avalanches on Friday. Snowpack stability will deteriorate throughout the day, and dangerous avalanche conditions will exist by the early afternoon. Time your travel to be off of slopes before the snow becomes wet and weak and avoid being on or below cornices. 

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Snow and Avalanche Discussion

We are six days into a major spring thaw following an extended period of cold weather. The snowpack is transitional, highly variable, and has not experienced a solid overnight freeze since the warm-up began. Sun and very warm temperatures will continue for most of the day Friday. By the late afternoon, expect increasing cloud cover and moderate southerly winds. Friday night should bring a mix of rain and snow.

A widespread wet loose avalanche cycle has been ongoing for the past week. (Mountain Loop Observation) These avalanches started small on solar aspects, but have grown larger and expanded their distribution around the compass. Wet loose activity has been observed on all aspects and elevations except for north facing slopes above 6000ft. The low elevation snowpack is melting out quickly, especially on E-S-W aspects. In addition, a handful of wet slab avalanches, glide avalanches, and cornice fall avalanches have been observed in the adjacent Stevens Pass zone.

There is quite a bit of water moving through the snowpack, and that brings with it lots of uncertainty. The snowpack is complex, and the mountains will continue to shed snow in unpredictable ways with continued warming. Be very leery of traveling near/under cornices or precarious snow/ice formations that could melt and fail, sending large blocks downslope. This is a good time to step back and let the mountains make the transition.

Avalanche Problems for Friday

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Photo for Loose Wet

Natural Wet Loose Avalanches (3/21/2019)

Loose wet avalanches have become large, and are gouging deeper into the snowpack. In shallow snowpack areas at lower elevations, these slides are pulling out rocks and dirt. Loose wet avalanches are even running in north facing terrain. The wet loose cycle has been slow to run its course but will continue with more warming on Friday. We won't likely see stability improve until we get a solid freeze. When you find wet surface snow, avoid traveling on steep open slopes and put a good buffer of terrain between you and large avalanche path runout zones.

 

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Wet slab avalanches are difficult to assess and tough to predict. Several days of above freezing temperatures continue to allow melt water to percolate through the snowpack. Even though we have not observed many wet slabs, we have a recipe for them right now. A wet slab could entrain a significant amount of snow and carry substantial water weight, making for an especially nasty avalanche. Avoid complex avalanche terrain late in the day when natural avalanches could be more likely.

 

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