I’m weather-obsessed. Because I ski, I’ve always wanted to know when and where it was going to snow. Then I got interested in rain. Would a lovely summer morning turn into thunderstorms by afternoon? Soon, I was turning on the Weather Channel to keep myself company when my boys napped. Then, I discovered NOAA Weather radio: an endless loop of local forecasting, that rarely changes throughout the day, but which I could listen to in the car. Again, it was background noise — but background noise that just might contain a powder forecast for the nearby mountains.
Last month, I discovered a website that rocked my weather world: OpenSnow. OpenSnow is a website run by meteorologist Joel Gratz, a skier who is passionate about powder and wants to make meteorology more meaningful for skiers, riders and everyone who loves snow. In other words, he wants to make forecasting something much more than background noise.
I caught up with Joel in early June to ask him about OpenSnow, his passion for snow and how he’s bringing powder forecasting to the people.
Your site says you are a skiing meteorologist. Two questions: Why skiing? Why meteorology?
I started skiing at age 4 and have loved it ever since. Because I liked skiing, I also loved snow, and this love affair with snow drove me to check the weather all the time as a kid so I could anticipate the next snow storm. In short, I got hooked on skiing and meteorology from a very young age. It was only natural to study meteorology and continue to ski race in college (Penn State), and to continue both of these things through grad school (University of Colorado).
What makes OpenSnow unique?
Location is only part of the story. The bigger part of the story is about what you’re doing in that location. People that ski (or snowboard or snowmobile) are dependent on accurate weather forecasts to help them plan when to do or not do their activities.
As a meteorologist who loves snow, I was frustrated with the vague, sensational, and mostly inaccurate forecasts that were available. So I started forecasting for myself and a small group of powder-hungry friends, and OpenSnow (formerly Colorado Powder Forecast) was born.
You have an “Ask the Weatherman” feature at your site. Why?
“Ask the Weatherman” is not a new concept in meteorology, but for 30 years it’s only been available to clients who pay big money to a few weather companies. For example, a train operator might ask a weatherman if their locomotive is in danger of being hit by the nearby tornado, and a meteorologist would respond with “yes” or “no”, not “30% chance”.
The science of meteorology is often times this good, but the public only sees vague forecasts of “chance of snow”, which are useless for decision-making. I wanted to change this.
The most common question we get is from people looking for advice on where to find the best snow over a weekend. We’re happy to help them compare options and suggest driving times and roads to keep them out of traffic jams while finding powder to ride.
The best part of “Ask the Weatherman” is when people write us after their trip thanking us for our suggestions and saying that they had a great time and couldn’t do it without our advice. Tailored weather forecasting shouldn’t be limited to big companies paying big money for private forecasts.
There is a perception that weather forecasts are often wrong. True or false?
Forecasts are rarely dead wrong, thanks to amazing advances in computer, radar, and satellite technology over the last 50 years. However, many people still perceive forecasts to be wrong because they’re not tailored to specific activities and aren’t updated frequently.
If you hear a forecast for “chance of snow” at your ski area tomorrow and it winds up snowing 15″ (powder day!), you might feel that forecast is inaccurate because you’re also heard “chance of snow” when the flakes only amounted to 1-2″. This is not a failing of meteorology, but a failing of how and when the forecast is communicated.
We focus on just one thing: forecasting snow for people who play in the snow. This allows us to communicate the forecast with more detail, more frequent updates, and in a witty tone that skiers enjoy.
What’s the hardest thing about predicting powder?
Removing personal emotion. As someone who loves powder, I *want* it to snow a lot. But in the business this is called “wish-casting”, where instead of making a forecast based 100% on science, we make a forecast based on 95% science and 5% on the emotion that we want it to snow. Even though I’d love to forecast 14-18″ of snow every day, that’s not going to happen. We write our forecasts and commentary with lots of excitement and attitude, but we also keep things honest and not sensationalistic.
What is your prediction for the upcoming snow year?
Long range seasonal forecasts 3-6 months into the future are terribly inaccurate, especially when trying to predict snow amounts. My advice is to ignore about 99% of seasonal forecasts because they’re not useful.
If there is a strong La Niña, then the Pacific Northwest will often get a lot of snow. If there is a strong El Niño, then the southern areas of the west will often get a lot of snow.
Outside of these two scenarios, don’t even bother paying attention to long-range forecasts as your time reading the forecasts would be better spent going on a hike or a bike ride. Think of seasonal weather forecasts for snow just like a talking head on TV predicting the outcome of a political race six months into the future — they get paid to talk, not to be correct. Same with The Farmer’s Almanac. It’s good only for entertainment value.
Joel Gratz owns and operates OpenSnow, with Andrew Murray. Together, they hope to take their love for snow, meteorology expertise and sense of humor worldwide someday. In the off-season, you can find their forecasts tailored to your summertime activities at ChanceofWeather.com.
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