Series of early season storms could set up potentially dangerous avalanche conditions
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY —A pair of storms set to roll through the high country the next few days could spur the first avalanche warnings of the season.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center will begin daily forecasts today (Nov. 1.), with zone forecasts and avalanche bulletins set to begin around mid-November, or earlier if conditions warrant, according to CAIC director Ethan Greene.
The CAIC’s forecasting contract with the Colorado Department of Transportation begins Nov. 1; that enables the center to make the forecast product available to backcountry travelers via the CAIC website, Greene said. You can also follow the CAIC zone forecasts on Twitter.
The CAIC breaks down its statewide forecast into several mountain zones — including Vail-Summit — and is known for the most accurate localized forecasts than most other sources, notoriously the Denver TV stations and The Weather Channel, which often tend to lump all of Colorado’s mountains together for forecasting purposes.
On high-elevation northerly aspects, some of the snow from earlier storms is already starting to change into non-cohesive angular grains under the influence of cold nighttime temperatures. With the Nov. 1 storm forecast to dump up to a foot of snow across the north-central mountains, it’s entirely possible that backcountry travelers could be looking at the potential for dangerous avalanche conditions in some areas by mid-week.
New wind-blown snow sitting atop those layers of developing sugar snow could form unstable slabs, leading to the potential for triggered releases.
“I don’t think it’s horrible yet this year, but we want to get people thinking about avalanches early,” Greene said, adding that there have been serious avalanche accidents in Colorado every month of the year. Last season, the first accident was reported from the Crested Butte area Oct. 24, with several more serious incidents during the first two weeks of November.
Working out of a central office in Boulder and several field offices around the state, the center hopes to fine-tune its forecasts this winter using new computers that will enable the forecasters to scale down snowfall, temperature and wind information to a much finer grid. That will enable even more precise and localized forecasts for specific areas, according to the CAIC’s John Snook, who previewed the computer upgrades at the recent Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Leadville.
The Center is also finalizing its annual report for the 2010-2011 season, tallying up snowfall, avalanche and funding statistics. The final version should be available on the CAIC website, and the draft report shows there were a total of 1,659 observed and reported avalanches last winter, which is likely only a fraction of the true number of slides statewide.
Similarly, the center documented 42 people caught in slides, with 10 burials and seven deaths. The first number reflects perhaps one-third of the true number of partial and full burials, Greene said, adding that some people are still reluctant to report an accident for fear of somehow getting trouble. Search and rescue experts say it’s not illegal to be caught in an avalanche. The only time you can face law enforcement ramifications is if you go into an area that’s closed.
The seven deaths marked the second year in a row that fatalities were above the long-term average of five deaths.
Greene said the center encourages backcountry travelers to report all their observations, especially avalanches involving people. the information is critical to compiling accurate forecasts of conditions and potential danger. The CAIC website has an easy online reporting form.
The report also includes month-by-month snowfall stats from ski areas around the state, highlight some of last season’s amazing winter weather. Loveland Basin, for example, reported a season total of 558 inches, including 100 inches or more in both March and April. Gothic, outside Crested Butte, reported 540 inches, with a 147-inch total for the month of December, and Steamboat also passed 500 inches for the season.
Several other ski areas topped the 400-inch mark, including Winter Park (414 inches) and Arapahoe Basin (405 inches), which tallied its second-snowiest winter on record and the snowiest April ever, with 87 inches.
The center operates on an annual budget of about $800,000, with funding from CDOT covering almost half that amount. Private donations were the second-largest source of revenue, at $38,000 dollars, while the ski industry pitched in with $35,000. Vail Resorts was the single-biggest contributor in the ski industry, with a $!5,000 donation.
The web continues to be the primary outreach tool, with a total of more than 1.3 million visits to toe CAIC site, for an average of about 192,000 visits per month for the entire winter season. The bulk of the web traffic came from the Front Range (27 percent) and the Vail-Summit zone (26 percent).
Through its avalanche education programs, the CAIC reached almost 6,000 people last season, down just slightly from the previous winter. This year’s avalanche classes are listed in the CAIC’s online calendar.
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