New weather station should help backcountry forecasts

| August 26, 2020 3:35 PM

The Flathead Avalanche Center recently finished installing weather stations on Tunnel Ridge near Essex — an undertaking that closed out a multi-year, multi-partnership effort to build a more robust weather dataset for the Flathead Range and beyond.

Stationed in Hungry Horse, the Flathead Avalanche Center has long been the go-to forecast resource for individuals looking to recreate in the Flathead, Swan and Whitefish ranges of the Flathead National Forest, as well as portions of Glacier National Park.

The center’s mission, according to its website, is “to help prevent the loss of life, limb and property to human and naturally occurring avalanches through information and education to the community.”

Staff fulfill this mission, in part, by providing current avalanche, snowpack and mountain weather information, which is collected from an intricate network of weather stations and various sensors scattered throughout the greater Flathead Valley. The center provides regular forecast updates and avalanche danger ratings on its websites and social media channels through graphics, photos, videos and more.

Snowmobilers, hikers and other backcountry enthusiasts can check the center’s website on a daily basis to ensure their activities will be met with favorable weather conditions or to see if a given area is susceptible to avalanches. The data is also analyzed by different agencies for fire management planning and is referenced regularly by media outlets, among other uses.

According to the center’s most recent annual report, the center’s website for the 2019 to 2020 season was viewed nearly 84,000 times, which was a 26% increase from the previous season. Overall, website pageviews have more than doubled since 2015 as more people look to access the center’s vital weather information.

But according to Zach Guy, director of the Flathead Avalanche Center, up until recently there were a handful of areas in the Flathead and Swan ranges that were void of that valuable, and often life-saving, information.

“It’s well understood with our forecasters that there were some significant black holes in our weather data,” Guy said. “That means we had no information on wind, temperature, snowpack or humidity — nothing.”

According to Guy, the need to fill in those black holes had become more pressing in recent years as more and more people began recreating in those areas.

The center settled on Tunnel Ridge because areas near the ridge, such as Marion Lake in Essex, have experienced heightened human activity. Guy said the weather station on the ridge, which cost about $25,000 in equipment and manpower to install, “splits the difference” between the popular high-elevation lake and other sought out destinations near Essex such as Scalplock Lookout Trail, Mount Murray and Dickey Lake.

“We are able to offer a more accurate weather report for different recreating hot spots, which we weren’t able to do before. People would have to look at data from a weather station that was farther away, which made it more of a guessing game,” Guy said. “Between this new station and others close by, people have a clearer picture for much of the Flathead Range.”

Guy explained the new equipment on Tunnel Ridge was set up at two different points. A wind station with sensors that can relay relative humidity, temperature and more was placed at a more remote, higher elevation and a separate snow site was established at a lower point in a less windy, more protected area and collects data on snow depth, temperature and humidity.

COMPLETING THESE projects is no easy feat, Guy said.

Before the center can pursue funding and equipment for the stations, it must first get approval from the U.S. Forest Service and other stakeholders that will evaluate the proposed sites for any possible environmental hazards.

“That work alone can be a pretty drawn out, back-and-forth process,” Guy said.

Once the center is given the green light, securing the materials and equipment necessary can be challenging and is often a waiting game. Guy said sometimes the center has to wait several months for a certain part to arrive and when everything finally arrives, most of the materials are bulky and must be flown in via helicopter — as was the case with Tunnel Ridge.

Once the pieces are airlifted to their destination, crews then ascend on foot to assemble the stations and censors. The trudge up to a site is strenuous at times and involves some substantial bushwhacking along the way in more remote areas.

According to Guy, six individuals made the primitive uphill hike to Tunnel Ridge recently. Between the hike in and assembling of the pieces, completing the setup was an all-day task that began in the early morning hours.

And all of this, of course, is only achievable weather permitting.

“Some of the sites experience weather extremes so we have to be really careful before sending up a helicopter or anyone from our team,” Guy said.

The center originally had planned to install the Tunnel Ridge project last fall, but due to weather setbacks and delays in the initial approval process, it was postponed to this summer. However, last fall the center was able to successfully install wind sensors atop Mount Aeneas at 7,500 feet elevation — a project that filled in a separate data gap in the Swan Range.

Mount Aeneas and Tunnel Ridge were some of the final pieces needed to complete the center’s robust weather dataset that will be used for decades to come. When asked what’s next on the table and if the center is looking into more installations, Guy said “at this point, we are just planning on savoring these few victories for now.”

While installation and ongoing maintenance of the stations wouldn’t be possible with dedicated crews both in the air and on the ground, Guy also said the partnerships extend well beyond the center.

The Flathead Avalanche Center functions as a partnership between the Flathead National Forest and the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center (FOFAC), a nonprofit organization that works to financially support the work of the center.

Much of the funding for the Tunnel Ridge and Mount Aeneas projects came from fundraising efforts by FOFAC. Other funding for Tunnel Ridge came from a grant from Flathead Electric Cooperative and a donation from BNSF Railway Co.

Others who regularly contribute to, or partner with the center include the Flathead Valley Community College and several local Flathead Valley businesses. One of the largest fundraising events of the year is the Great Fish Challenge, which is hosted by the Whitefish Community Foundation. In 2019, the event brought in over $30,000 for FOFAC.

All together, Guy said the partners “create a safer environment for backcountry recreating.” According to the annual report, this past season was the second season in a row without an avalanche fatality in the center’s forecast area.

To view weather and avalanche reports or to view upcoming educational opportunities offered through the Flathead Avalanche Center, go to https://flatheadavalanche.org/