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Weather Information for Backcountry Travel

by David Jones
Warning Prepardness Meteorologist, Meteorological Service of Canada

Following on the heels of Alan Jones' article "Trip Preparation for Safe Backcountry Winter Travel", it's time to take a closer look at a key component of preparation – getting weather information. If, like Alan, you prefer to choose your destination based on snow and weather conditions and you've chosen your friends wisely but none are meteorologists, you need to know how to get good weather information. What follows are the 'best bets' for weather information.

Meteorologists

The best source of weather information is a meteorologist familiar with the weather of the area. Meteorologists have immediate access to data not available to the public. The only way to speak to such a meteorologist is via the 1.900 telephone service operated by the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC). The number is 1.900.565.5555. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of a telephone weather briefing:

  1. Explain where you're going, when, and the elevation. Ask if there are any weather stations nearby that measure snow pack, snowfall, and temperatures. If yes, find out about recent temperatures, winds, and snowfall.
  2. Explain that you understand the difficulty in producing a good forecast for such a remote area on short-notice. Ask if it's OK to call back a little later, to give the meteorologist some time. (It will cost less to make two calls than to wait on the line while someone tries to figure out the weather on-the-fly.)
  3. Call two days in advance of your departure to get an overall view of the weather. It's handy to be online so you can ask for links to weather websites.
  4. Explain that you would like to call again on the day of your departure. Find out a good time to call and ask if the person you're speaking to will be on shift then. If he/she will not be on shift, ask if the new shift can be given a heads-up to your call.

Internet

Past, current, and forecast weather is available from many Internet sites. The following is a top-ten list of weather websites that every backcountry enthusiast should know about.

Past Weather

  • Real-time Snow Pillow data from BC Ministry of Environment:
    www.gov.bc.ca
    Data including the past seven days of temperature, cumulative precipitation (and snow-water equivalent) for over 60 high-elevation stations in BC can be easily downloaded.
  • Archived Data from the MSC Climate Data Online website:
    Weather Offic Website – Archives
    All historical data from MSC weather stations (and volunteer climate stations) including important stations such as Whistler, Hope Slide, Tatlayoko Lake, Revelstoke, Golden, Yoho Park, Banff, and Jasper. The latest available data is about one day old, but this site will eventually include observations right up to the past hour, making it the preferred location for real-time MSC weather station data also.

Current Weather

  • Satellite Imagery from the University of Washington:
    www.atmos.washington.edu
    Simply the best. In the left-hand frame, choose "Satellite Imagery" then pick any infrared (IR) or visible (VIS) imagery under "West Coast" or "Eastern Pacific".
  • Canadian Radar Imagery from the MSC:
    www.weatheroffice.ec.gc.ca
    Click on BC or Alberta to see radar coverage of the mountains. The new Silver Star (Vernon) and Prince George radars are now operational. Click the individual radars to see the animations.
  • US Radar Imagery from the University of Washington:
    University of Washingtion website – Radar Imagery
    Under "Location", choose a radar or composite of the radars that border BC and Alberta.

Forecast Weather

Alpine Recreation Forecasts

Heading into the backcountry near Whistler or the North Shore Mountains? You're in luck! In BC, the only site-specific mountain forecasts produced by a meteorologist are for these areas.

  • For Whistler, click "Whistler Alpine Recreation Forecast"
    www.whistlerblackcomb.com/forecast
  • For the North Shore Mountains click "Weather Forecast" at:
    www.mountseymour.com
  • Automated, computer-generated forecast maps of freezing level and snowfall:
    www.snow-forecast.com
    This is computer model-output made simple. Computer models do a great job with freezing levels but use the snowfall forecasts with caution.
  • Automated computer-generated mountain forecasts are available for select ski resorts in British Columbia:
    Big White (Kelowna):
    www.bigwhite.ca
    Click "Daily Snow Reports" then "Big White Forecast".
    Silver Star (Vernon):
    http://www.silverstarmtn.com
    Click "Weather" then "Environment Canada Forecast".
    Sun Peaks (Kamloops):
    www.sunpeaksresort.com
    Roll-over "Weather and Cams" and click "Forecast".
  • Site specific freezing-level, wind and RH forecasts for selected sites in BC:
    www.atmos.washington.edu
    These time-height charts require some interpretation. A quick description of the charts and an explanation of how to use them can be foundhere.

I can remember way back then constantly following the mountain forecast that Environment Canada had. Even from an early age, I always wanted to know what the freezing level was because, of course, I was interested in dry powder.


DISCLAIMER

This site provides some information regarding avalanche safety. It does NOT contain everything you need to know to protect yourself from avalanche risks.

The information on this site is "as is". It might not be current, complete, accurate or correct, so please do not rely on it. Mountain Equipment Co-op will NOT be liable to you or anyone else for any damages, injuries or death that might result from your reliance on this site or any information on it.

Always get advice from an avalanche expert if you are thinking about entering potential avalanche areas.