HOBO Weather Station Helps Keep Skiers Safe from Avalanches

Market: 
Outdoor
Organization: 
Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC)
Summary: 
In southwestern Montana, at one of the most heavily used recreation areas in the country, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center uses weather stations to collect data from remote mountainous areas to provide users with current avalanche, snowpack, and mountain weather information.
HOBO weather station, micro station, avalanche research, Gallatin National Forest, GNFAC

To be certain of avoiding the threat of an avalanche, just stay clear of snowy areas where avalanches are apt to occur. True perhaps, but complete avoidance is hardly a viable option for those who are passionate about cold weather activities such as backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, and ice-climbing. For them, the best defenses against avalanche trouble are preparedness, education, and information.

Gallatin National Forest, located in southwestern Montana, is one of the most heavily used recreation areas in the country. Situated in Bozeman, Montana is the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC), which provides the area's recreational users with current avalanche, snowpack, and mountain weather information, as well as basic avalanche education.

Mark Staples has been an avalanche specialist with the GNFAC since 2007, after earning a master's degree in engineering at Montana State University, studying snow and avalanches. Staples is one of the three avalanche specialists who operate the GNFAC, which covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometers, including the Bridger, Gallatin, Madison, and Washburn mountain ranges, the Lionhead area near West Yellowstone, and the mountains that surround Cooke City, an extremely popular snowmobile destination.

Staples explains that in defined ski areas, ski patrollers use explosives to bring down avalanches before people go skiing. In the remote, higher-elevation backcountry, however, users rely on their own knowledge and skills to avoid, or survive, an avalanche. And the stakes are high: a person who becomes buried in snow from an avalanche will suffocate within 10 to 15 minutes if not rescued. With funding from the National Forest Service and additional funding from the non-profit organization Friends of the Avalanche Center, the GNFAC provides the information and education that users need to navigate the backcountry as safely as possible.

During an average week, one of the three GNFAC avalanche experts is out in the mountains at least six out of seven days assessing the snowpack. Every day, at 7:30 a.m., the GNFAC issues through its website (http://www.mtavalanche.com/) a daily advisory that contains a summary of the past 24 hours of weather, the weather forecast for the next 24 hours, and information on snowpack and avalanches.

Advisories are issued on a daily basis because snowpack conditions can change drastically within 24 hours. And weather data – particularly snowfall, temperature, and wind speed – are crucial in understanding snowpack conditions. Staples explains that wind actually strips snow from one side of a ridge and deposits it on the other, adding weight to the snowpack and increasing stress, bringing the snowpack closer to its breaking point. And temperature comes into play in that it affects snowpack by making it weaker or stronger.

Until quite recently, the GNFAC relied primarily on local ski area weather stations for the wind speed data evaluated for its daily advisories. In order to estimate wind speeds in remote high-elevation areas, it was necessary to extrapolate these crucial data over large areas from weather stations up to 70 miles away.

HOBO weather station, micro station, avalanche research, Gallatin National Forest, GNFAC

Two years ago, however, the GNFAC began using research-grade HOBO® Weather Stations from Massachusetts-based Onset to collect weather data directly from remote mountainous sites. This has allowed the avalanche specialists to obtain more accurate and reliable information about areas that are seeing progressively increased use as gear and equipment improve with newer technologies and more people are venturing into the backcountry, away from the ski areas. Staples notes that with the HOBO equipment they have in place, his avalanche group is "getting more information so that people can make smart decisions."

The HOBO Weather Station is based on plug-and-play "Smart Sensor" technology. This means that Staples was able to simply plug individual weather sensors into the station, and the station immediately recognized each one without complicated wiring, programming or calibration. The entire system, including sensors, can run for a full year on just four AA batteries, thus eliminating the need for solar panels or large battery packs.

To date, the GNFAC has deployed two HOBO Weather Stations. Staples first became familiar with HOBO equipment while studying for his master's degree, and he was impressed with its high level of user-friendliness. When it came time for the GNFAC to purchase weather stations for some of its remote areas, Staples says, "We needed something that was affordable and portable and easy to use and reliable." He also mentioned that because the power requirements of the data loggers are so low, one set of AA batteries can last an entire season – even in locations where temperatures are known to dip to minus 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The data logging weather stations measure wind speed and temperature every two minutes, and the data are recorded every hour to provide average temperature, average sustained wind speed, and the maximum wind speed (or gust) over the course of the hour. The data collected by the HOBO Weather Stations are available to the public on GNFAC's website.

The two HOBO weather stations were deployed at locations in the same general vicinity with SNOTEL (snow telemetry) sites, an automated system run by the National Resources Conservation Service. The weather stations, however, are situated high on ridge tops to record wind speeds and temperatures there, while the SNOTEL sites must be situated in less windy locations in order to measure snowfall and collect temperature data there. The GNFAC is able to take advantage of the SNOTEL data, combine it with the HOBO data, and provide more accurate avalanche information for these areas than ever before.

The first HOBO Weather Station deployed by the GNFAC two years ago is located at an elevation of 9,984 feet near a town called Cooke City, a major snowmobile destination just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Staples reports that over the years there have been numerous fatalities in this area. The second weather station was deployed this past summer at an elevation of 9,900 feet at Hyalite Canyon, one of the most popular National Forest areas in the state of Montana, and an extremely popular ice-climbing spot. Up until the past few years, the road in this area wasn't plowed in the winter. Now that it is being plowed, however, ice-climbers are able to obtain access not only in the fall, but also in mid-winter, when the increased snowfall presents a greater avalanche threat. In fact, last winter a world-renowned ice-climber was swept off the mountain by an avalanche and fell to his death. Staples notes that the weather station at Hyalite Canyon is located directly above some of the most popular ice climbs, and with the data the station provides, users can choose specific climbs based on the avalanche danger rating. He says that the death of the ice-climber last year "…just kind of drives home the fact how much we need this data and how important it is."

As part of its effort to obtain additional accurate and reliable avalanche weather information so that recreational users can make better and safer decisions in remote backcountry areas, Staples and his colleagues at the GNFAC have plans to deploy additional HOBO Weather Stations. By checking the GNFAC's daily advisories and following the basic rules of safety as noted on the website (travel with a partner; carry a beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use them; and travel one at a time in avalanche terrain), there is no doubt injuries can be avoided and lives saved for those who cannot and would not resist the thrill of wintertime ventures into the backcountry.