With a new, dynamic system, Colorado Avalanche Information Center adjusts how slide risk is shared to better inform backcountry thrill-seekers

Forecasts will be shared in afternoon and forecast zones will change depending on avalanche risk

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Eileen Allen takes off her boots while Kathy Thayer puts her skies in the back of a car on the top of Rabbit Ears Pass Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. The two women headed up the pass for a little skiing after the area got the first taste of snow from a storm that moved through the area Sunday into Monday.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has overhauled its website to change when it updates avalanche risk and offer more dynamic forecast areas, all in an effort to better inform skiers before they head out into the backcountry.

Ethan Greene, director of the avalanche center, said the upgrades are the most significant the agency has made in more than a decade and have been in the works for years. The last two winters have seen 18 people die in Colorado avalanches, including a Steamboat Springs man in March. 

“Every accident is the impetus to try to do better for people in the state,” Greene said. “We’re constantly looking at the work that we’re doing and figuring out how we can try to do it better.”

Perhaps the most noticeable change is how avalanche risk is forecasted across the state, with a series of dynamic zones replacing the 10 predetermined areas the agency has used since 2006.

This means instead of the local forecast covering the entire Steamboat and Flat Tops zone, a vast area that contains a variety of mountain ranges, the forecast will prioritize areas with similar slide conditions.

“Rather than having these predefined zones that we describe the conditions within that boundary … we have the ability to group different areas based on the conditions,” Greene said.

For example, if slopes in the Zirkel Wilderness have a higher avalanche risk than those farther south on Rabbit Ears Pass, the center now can put out different forecasts, Greene said.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is now forecasting for dynamic zones rather than predetermined ones. This allows forecasters to group areas based on avalanche risk across particular areas. On Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, the mountains around Steamboat Springs and the Flat Tops were forecasted differently, but that might not always be the case.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Screenshot

The same goes for the Flat Tops Wilderness, which on Thursday, Nov. 3, had higher avalanche danger than the mountains flanking Steamboat Springs. In the past, differences in risk within a region were communicated in the written forecasts.

“When we see that there is a big difference between the different parts of mountains around Steamboat, rather than explaining that in the text, we can actually do it visually,” Greene explained.

Greene said they partnered with Avalanche Canada, which forecasts slide danger in British Columbia and Alberta, to create the new software. While the site looks much different on the backend, Greene said it was designed to look similar to what Coloradans have used for years.

“As our capabilities increase, we can change that on the backend,” Greene said. “But how you access that information on the frontend remains the same, all you have to do is click on the map or type in the place name, and we’ll give you the best product we have.”

The new website is mobile-friendly, and the map allows users to search for a trailhead they plan to use and get the forecast for that area. A user can search for Buffalo Pass, and it will pull up the forecast for that area.

Updates to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website added a search feature, allowing users to search for a specific trailhead when planning their backcountry trek.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Screenshot

Next week, the avalanche center’s mobile app will be updated as well to reflect the websites changes.

Another key change is when the forecasts will be updated. In recent years, forecasts go up around 7:30 a.m., allowing backcountry users to check conditions before they head out. Greene said they are now putting them up at 4:30 p.m. the day before.

“Essentially, it gives people the same information earlier,” Greene said. “Rather than waiting to get it in the morning, where a lot of people have already made their plan and they’re checking to make sure things haven’t changed too much, we’re trying to get it to them the night before, so they have it when making their plan.”

Greene said he hopes they can continue to upgrade the website and incorporate new technology to have even more precise avalanche risk forecasts in the future.

As for current conditions, Greene said, early season snow generally isn’t a good sign for avalanche risk, as it tends to form a weak base. Depending what happens later on, that can lead to big problems, Greene said. Still, early snow doesn’t always mean bad avalanches.

“(Early snow) is not that unusual,” Greene said. “We have early season snow most years. Some years turn into bad avalanche years and some don’t.”

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