Every fall the first major storms to roll off the Pacific Ocean inspire ridiculously sensationalized headlines regarding snowfall totals. Without fail somebody will publish a snow forecast from the summit of Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker, sparking wild speculation about early season skiing and mass confusion regarding the difference between Mt. Baker the volcano and Mt. Baker the ski area.
Last week’s storm was no exception. “Mt. Baker Forecasted to Receive up to 149 inches of Snow in Next 5 Days!” raved unofficialnetworks.com. “50-70 INCHES OF SNOW FORECASTED FOR MOUNT RAINIER” read another of their headlines. “Up To 7+ Feet of Snow Forecasted For The West Coast Tomorrow!” claimed Liftopia.com. These are just a few of the moronic headlines that circulated through the skiing world last week.
It seems people would stop believing these headlines every fall, but alas, it is not the case. For whatever reason, the general skiing public still struggles to recognize that the summit of Mt. Rainier is thousands of feet higher than any West Coast ski areas, and that Mt. Baker the volcano is 5,000 feet higher than Mt. Baker the ski area’s highest point. However, the true root of the confusion revolves not around geographical misconceptions, but around a fundamental failure to interpret the National Weather Service’s’ “point-and-click” forecast.
The common thread that connects all of last week’s ridiculous headlines is that they originated from the NWS point-and-click forecast. For those unfamiliar with the point-and-click, it is exactly what it sounds like: the NWS product allows users to click anywhere on a map to obtain a personalized forecast for the chosen location and elevation. However, there’s nobody “signing off” on these forecasts, so to speak. The point-and-click forecasts are what the program spits out for the chosen location and elevation, and consequently there is not much continuity from forecast to forecast or much oversight thereof. The point-and-click forecasts offer a good approximation of what weather conditions may be found at a given location, but that’s not how the forecasts get interpreted.
Time and time again, far too much faith is placed in the point-and-click forecasts. Many people take the forecasts literally, as can be seen from last week’s headlines, and that’s the problem. They offer a good approximation, not a definitive forecast. The program struggles to pick up nuances created by terrain and topographical features, and precipitation and snowfall forecasts often suffer as a result. Similarly, the forecast for wind is often skewed. About the only thing the forecasts do consistently well is predict temperatures at elevation. Consequently, for the serious skier or backcountry user, that’s the only part of the forecast that should be taken literally.
So, given all the problems with the point-and-click, users looking for backcountry weather forecasts would be wise to consult other sources for information. When it comes to precipitation and snowfall totals, consider looking at the actual forecasts put out by the NWS offices. These snowfall and precipitation forecast are presented in easy-to-read graphics and are often highly accurate. Our regional NWS offices: Great Falls, Missoula and Billings, post these forecasts online and on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The offices do a fantastic job with these forecasts, and I would encourage everyone to consult these forecasts rather than the point-and-click to obtain the most accurate precipitation predictions. There is a marked difference between human-generated forecasts and the point-and-click, and it is important to keep this in mind when interpreting the weather or planning to go outdoors.