A new look for the CAIC’s backcountry avalanche forecasts
This fall we’re launching some changes to the backcountry program. Here is what you need to know.
Snow is starting to pile up in the mountains and we will start issuing daily weather and avalanche forecasts on November 1st. This fall our website will look a little different. Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to find lots of information on avalanche conditions around the state. But we’ve made some changes that we hope will make it easier for you to find the information you need when you need it.
Changes for the fall of 2022
- Dynamic forecast zones - avalanche forecasts issued for areas with similar conditions
- Forecasts in the afternoon - avalanche forecasts issued in the afternoon for the following two days will help you plan your next tour
- A new website - a more stable and mobile-friendly website to help you get the right forecast
What does this mean for you?
We are excited about the changes we’re making this fall. However, they may not have a big impact on how you get your avalanche information. Getting a forecast on the new site is the same basic process you use to get other types of geographic information on websites. It is similar to how you might get a weather forecast or information from Apple or Google Maps. The same way you navigate or find information in your favorite mapping tools. Just move around the map and drop a pin. The site will give you the current avalanche information for the area. You can also type in the name of the place you’re going or a nearby geographic feature. The site will drop a pin for you and bring up the current avalanche forecast. It is really that simple.
So if it is so simple, why the blog? Well, we are excited about the changes and know that some people in our community will want to know more about why we’re making these changes and if there are more to come. So if you’re one of those people, read on. You can also see a couple of short videos about the new site here.
We also want to highlight the work done at the Center and with our valued partners. The CAIC, which is a program in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has been working with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) since 1992 and the Friends of the CAIC since 2008. The Center has a long history of collaborating with avalanche safety programs in other countries, including a close relationship with researchers at the WSL - Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. We also have long-standing relationships with Avalanche Canada and Parks Canada, and about two years ago we entered into a formal partnership with Avalanche Canada to build tools that support public avalanche safety programs. This fall is the first publicly visible portion of that partnership, and we’re proud of the work we’ve been doing together.
Dynamic Forecast Zones
A little history
The Colorado Avalanche Warning Program (CAWP) began issuing statewide alerts of dangerous avalanche conditions in the late 1960s. CAWP grew into the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) in the early 1980s, and the CAIC continued to provide avalanche information statewide. In the 1990s, we started issuing avalanche forecasts for three forecast zones: the Northern Mountains, the Central Mountains, and the Southern Mountains. In 2006 we split the three zones into ten. Over the last 15 years, you’ve probably grown accustomed to these different sets of forecast zones. We issue a Statewide Avalanche Summary for one zone from late spring to early fall, and Regional Avalanche Forecasts for three zones in the fall and spring. During the heart of the winter, we issue Backcountry Avalanche Forecasts for ten zones.
This season we take the next step. Instead of writing a forecast for avalanche conditions in a predefined zone, the new platform allows us to select an area for each forecast based on the avalanche conditions. Each day as we evaluate the avalanche danger, we’ll also determine which parts of the Colorado mountains have similar avalanche conditions. Then we’ll write an avalanche forecast describing the avalanche problems and avalanche danger across that forecast zone. You may see less than ten forecast zones during long periods without snow or wind. During stormy periods where different parts of the state see drastically different amounts of new snow, you may see more than ten forecast zones. As we find more ways of getting data from around the state and improve our modeling program, you may see the number of forecast zones grow.
Why the change?
You can think of the old, predefined zones as spatial containers. Within each container, we could set the avalanche danger ratings and avalanche problems. If there was a difference within the container, we used text to describe it. Have you ever seen the avalanche conditions vary between Cameron Pass and Berthoud Pass? Or Loveland Pass and Vail Pass? Independence Pass and Marble? Maybe Telluride and Lake City? Well, we have and it would be easy to make that list much, much longer. Fifteen years ago, we drew the zone boundaries with care, considering climatology, topography, access issues, and many other factors. We also needed to consider how many forecasts we could produce each day. The ten-zone construct addressed many of these issues and has served us well for over a decade. But now we can provide better service to you and we need to take one more step forward to do it. Although this will be new to Colorado, it is not entirely new. Our colleagues in Switzerland have been using a similar system for many years.
Forecasts in the Afternoon
A little history
The Colorado Avalanche Warning Program (CAWP) began issuing regular, formal avalanche warnings in November 1973. The group issued warnings, and warning terminations, at different times during the day based on conditions and media exposure. In 1983 the group moved from Fort Collins to Denver, became the CAIC, and began issuing avalanche forecasts twice a day - in the morning and afternoon. In 2008 we decided we could only issue the ten-zone products once daily and chose the morning product.
What can you expect?
We are going to issue avalanche forecasts each afternoon at 4:30 PM. Each forecast will have avalanche danger ratings for three elevation bands and two days, as well as up to three avalanche problems. The content and layout of the forecasts will be similar to our tried-and-true format you are familiar with. The afternoon forecast will have this information for the following two days. So the forecast issued on Friday afternoon will have danger ratings and problems for Saturday and Sunday. Don’t worry, we’ll still be in the office each day at 4:00 AM. If it snows a lot more, or a lot less, than we expect, we’ll update the backcountry products. Whether you plan your backcountry outing over pint glasses or coffee mugs, there will always be a valid forecast.
Why the change?
Today’s avalanche safety courses emphasize planning. We teach students to read the weather and avalanche forecast and build a plan for their trip where their exposure to hazards fits with the current conditions. The emphasis on planning evolved, in part, from research on how we make decisions, which shows how difficult it is for us to incorporate new information and modify an existing plan. We hope avalanche forecasts in the afternoon for the following two days will help your planning process and allow us to improve our service to you.
What happens if conditions change overnight unexpectedly?
We’ve always updated forecasts when the avalanche danger changed, and we could warn people about it, and this will continue with the move to afternoon forecasts. If conditions change overnight in ways we did not anticipate, we will adjust the forecasts. As with any information - news article, Wikipedia page, forecasts for the stock market or climate, even a bus schedule - it is important to look at when that information was published. For CAIC forecasts, you can find the issue time and date at the top of each tab. We will also Tweet whenever we issue a new set of forecasts.
A New Website
The new website is a long-needed upgrade. This modern site runs faster and on a wider range of devices. You can also do a lot just on the homepage. The homepage is a map of the current avalanche danger. Mouse over an area to get travel advice based on the avalanche danger. Scroll down to get help on the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale. Click on the map or type in a place name, to drop a pin and get the current avalanche forecast for that area.
When you drop a pin on the map, the tray will open (from the right on a large screen and the bottom on a small one) with the current avalanche forecast. The forecasts still cover large areas, and the map will show you the size of the forecast zone and where your pin is within it. If your pin is near the edge of the zone, it is a good idea to read the forecast for the neighboring zone.
You’ll find three tabs in the tray: Avalanche Forecast, Forecast Discussion, and Weather Forecasts. These should look quite similar to the forecasts you’ve seen in the past.
- The Avalanche Forecast is valid for the forecast zone on the map. It has an avalanche danger rating for three elevation bands: Below Treeline, Near Treeline, and Above Treeline. It has a short summary of the avalanche conditions along with up to three avalanche problems, including the: Avalanche Problem Type, Aspect/Elevation, Likelihood of triggering, and avalanche Size, and some helpful hints for dealing with each one. The forecast has images and videos that illustrate the avalanche issues described in the forecast.
- The Forecast Discussion is valid for one of three regions: Northern Mountains, Central Mountains, or Southern Mountains. It provides more details on the avalanche conditions and issues the forecast team wants to highlight for people who are interested in more details. The Discussion has images and videos that illustrate the avalanche issues described in the forecast.
- The Weather Forecasts tab has a statewide summary of weather conditions over the next 36 hours. It has 21 forecasts for locations around the state. The forecast points are sorted into mountain regions (Northern, Central, and Southern). Each point has a forecast of temperature, wind speed and direction, sky cover, and snowfall for three 12-hour periods.
If you want to read a forecast for another region, you can do that from the homepage. Just move the pin on the map to a new location (click on the map or type in a place name). The new forecast will appear in the tray. You can close the tray to get a bigger map. You can zoom in and out on the map to find major geographic features and landmarks.
Can I bookmark my go-to area?
Yes. You can’t bookmark the forecast for the Sangre de Cristo zone. But you can bookmark the homepage with a pin dropped in your favorite location. Just drop your pin on the map. The latitude and longitude will appear in the URL, and you can create a bookmark. That allows you to bookmark as many spots as you like and pull up the current forecast quickly and easily. The size of the forecast zone that each spot lands in will change over time. Make sure you use the map interface to give the current forecast some spatial context and allow you to read a neighboring product.
What About Models, Observations, and Accidents?
The menu structure hasn’t changed dramatically, and you can find the same stuff in the same place. Much of the other content has not changed, but we are working on upgrades to the Observations and Accidents sections. We hope to roll out a new set of observation forms later this winter including updated table and map displays and, eventually a Field Report Explorer.
Pay No Attention to the People Behind the Curtain
The updates to the website, forecast zones, and scheduling are the result of several years of work behind the scenes. A lot of that work, and the issues that drove it, falls into “inside baseball”. But there are a few things worth noting here.
A new forecasting tool to build avalanche forecasts?
Avalanche Canada and the CAIC were both working on rebuilding the tools forecasters use to create avalanche forecasts. As we worked on similar development projects, we shared ideas and our various successes and setbacks. Our teams had a history of working together, and eventually, we decided our operational needs were more closely aligned than we realized. So we established a formal partnership in 2019, adding to work Avalanche Canada had done to build a new forecast platform for the CAIC’s highway program. This work evolved into the platform that Avalanche Canada, Parks Canada, and the CAIC will all use to create public avalanche safety products this winter. That’s really exciting, in a geeky nuts and bolts way.
Modern web design separates what you see on the screen from how data is assembled and forecasts are created. The system that Avalanche Canada built, called AvID, is a backend system used only by the forecasters. The CAIC and our Canadian partners create forecasts using the same software and using a process based on the Conceptual Model of Avalanche Hazard. Our front-end sites, or how we display the forecasts to you, can be completely different.
Even more important and exciting in the nuts and bolts way is what the separation of forecast generation and forecast display will allow us to do in the future. We can make improvements to what you see, or how the forecasters do things, without breaking the other side. Our development timeline is full of better tools for you and for our forecasters. The new website architecture allows us to make the tools available when they are ready instead of having to rebuild huge sections of the website all at once.