The CAIC issues avalanche danger ratings based on the North American Avalanche Danger Scale. This scale contains five levels from Low danger (Level 1) to Extreme danger (Level 5). During certain avalanche conditions, we may issue a special product in addition to the danger rating. The three special products we may issue are:
- Avalanche Watch
- Avalanche Warning
- Special Avalanche Advisory
These products have different applications and we issue them to catch your attention for different reasons. The products are clearly displayed on the home page map if you hover over a forecast zone. The products are also displayed as headline banners in the backcountry avalanche forecast.
Avalanche Watches and Warnings are related and based solely on current and expected avalanche hazard. We issue them when the avalanche hazard is, or will be, High (Level 4) or Extreme (Level 5).
Special Avalanche Advisories are different from watches and warnings. They are based on concerns that people are at increased risk of being harmed by an avalanche. We consider the avalanche conditions and the number of people that we expect in the backcountry. We’ll issue a Special Avalanche Advisory when we are worried that you have an increased chance of getting in an avalanche accident, but the avalanche danger isn’t going to be High or Extreme.
An Avalanche Watch means that there is a good chance we will issue an Avalanche Warning in the near future (around 24 hours).
Our goal is to issue an Avalanche Watch the day before an Avalanche Warning. Although this is the goal, at times we may issue an Avalanche Warning without issuing a Watch. We might also issue an Avalanche Watch and no subsequent Avalanche Warning. Remember, these are forecasts and sometimes the avalanche danger rises rapidly. Other times we expect it to rise, but the storm fizzles and the danger never reaches the criteria for High.
What you should do– Be prepared! Re-evaluate your backcountry travel plans for the following day. Consider planning alternate safe routes for multi-day trips should conditions worsen. Check the avalanche forecast at colorado.gov/avalanche for the latest updates.
An Avalanche Warning means we have very dangerous avalanche conditions. The avalanche danger is High (Level 4 of 5) or Extreme (Level 5 of 5) and large natural avalanches are either happening or are expected to happen during the forecast period. During this warning period, human-triggered avalanches are very likely.
What you should do– Take action! Avoid avalanche terrain. If you are traveling in the backcountry during a warning, be aware of your surroundings and avoid crossing underneath avalanche paths. Plan any backcountry outing very carefully to steer clear of avalanche terrain and give avalanche paths a wide berth.
Special Avalanche Advisory (SAA)
A Special Avalanche Advisory means the avalanche danger is not High or Extreme (Levels 4 and 5 of 5), but we have the conditions for a dangerous avalanche accident. We might issue an advisory to alert you of rapidly changing avalanche conditions or potentially dangerous conditions with many people at risk. For example, the CAIC could issue a SAA if a big storm is going to roll through during a holiday weekend. We might also issue an SSA if large, human-triggered avalanches are likely over a weekend with deep powder and bluebird conditions.
What you should do– Exercise caution. Evaluate slopes that are mentioned in the advisory with extra caution. For example, the SAA may talk about Persistent Slab avalanches breaking wider than expected and being touchier than expected on north and northeast-facing slopes. In this situation you would want to factor in a wider margin for safety while trip planning.