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The tough task forecasters face in the Rocky Mountains

Staff writers
January 19, 2013 — Kelsey McEwen explains why building a forecast within a mountain range is a tough task, and how that affects avalanche prevention in the Kootenay Pass.

Avalanche technicians rely on automated stations and manual examination.
Avalanche technicians rely on automated stations and manual examination.

It can be hard to build a forecast for British Columbia's mountain range, not least of which because of the drastic changes in weather in areas like the Kootenay Pass.

In fact, one of the first things you see when driving through the region is a sign, warning of just that.

"You can have such major changes, say, from down in Nelson, which is down in the valley, up to the summit," Weather Network meteorologist and stormhunter Mark Robinson says. "I mean, huge differences in amount of precipitation, type of precipitation, cloud, everything."

It's an 1,100-metre difference in elevation between the pass summit and the town of Salmo, just 37 km away.

That makes pinpointing the forecast tough, even for seasoned meteorologists.

Down in the valley, an observer could be below the freezing line, but up on the pass, they could be well above. The difference: Rain in the valley, 25 cm of snow at the summit.

Because of the difference, avalanche control teams must monitor weather patterns closely, with the help of two remote weather stations collecting data on wind,  temperature and humidity at the higher elevations.

Robb Andersen, the lead avalanche forecaster at the Kootenay Pass, says that data is supplemented by manual checking.

"It's one thing to be able to look at the remote weather data, but it really helps to get into the snow, stick your fingers in the snow, actually look at it and get a feel for it, and it just paints a better picture for an avalanche forecaster," he says.

The more information available, the  better avalanche technicians like Andersen are able to get a handle on the wild weather dynamic along the region's highways.

That knowledge is the best tool they have to keep everyone safe.

With files from Kelsey McEwen

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