Ski area snow reports a victim of ‘human error’

Lack of measuring standards, regulations means “snow reports need to be taken with a grain of salt.’

The inches just didn’t add up.

Rather than reveling in the foot or more of fresh powder that had fallen on Utah’s ski areas by noon Wednesday, Evan Thayer was inside squinting at his computer screen. A fellow OpenSnow.com forecaster had asked him to try to make sense of the snow reports that had come in that morning for the three ski resorts on Oregon’s Mount Hood. But they followed no rhyme nor reason. One had reported 14 inches of new snow, another 5 inches and the third none.

“We’re saying, ‘That can’t be accurate,’” said Thayer, the site’s Utah forecaster. “I mean, these are like less than a mile away from each other.”

Indeed, two out of three weren’t accurate. And to the chagrin of forecasters like Thayer as well as skiers and snowboarders weighing whether or not to make a trip up the mountain, that’s not entirely unusual. In fact, due to a combination of location variance, measuring discrepancies and human error, as well as a general lack of industry standards, the snow reports at most ski resorts are specious at best and suspicious at worst.

“Almost always snow reports need to be taken with a grain of salt,” Thayer said, “and the only real true way to verify totals is go up there yourself, because [by comparing snow reports] you’re gonna drive yourself crazy.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justin Byington, left, and Dave Eriksson, both hydrologists with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) dump the snow out of a Federal Snow Sampler at the Powder Mountain SNOTEL or snow telemetry network, March 24, 2022. Utah's 137 SNOTELs are located in often remote, high-elevation mountain watersheds and monitor snowpack, precipitation, soil moisture, temperature, and other climatic conditions affecting Utah's watersheds. The Powder Mountain SNOTEL data is used to forecast summer water supply conditions in the Ogden and Little Bear River watersheds affecting water supplies in Weber and Davis counties.

Here in Utah, Solitude appeared to be the greatest benefactor of Wednesday’s big storm, reporting 28 inches of snow in 24 hours. Brighton, just up Big Cottonwood Canyon, chimed in with a report of 24 inches in as many hours. Just to the south, meanwhile, both Alta and Snowbird said they’d seen 19 inches in that span.

So how could one ski area report almost a foot more snow than one that is just over the ridge?

It very well could have to do with the direction of the storm and where a resort falls in its path. It could just as well have to do with the location of a resort’s measuring site, both in terms of elevation and terrain. The higher up a measuring station is on a mountain, the more snow that resort is likely to report (Thayer said he prefers mid-mountain sites). Similarly, the measurement area could be located in a pocket that is more or less windswept or protected from the sun than the majority of a resort’s runs. For better or worse, that could give skiers and riders a false sense of what to expect once they get out on the slopes.

How much new snow did Utah resorts just get?

Solitude — 28 inches

Brighton — 24 inches

Alta — 19 inches

Snowbird — 19 inches

Deer Valley — 25 fresh inches Wednesday

Park City Mountain — 23 inches

Sundance — 22 inches

Powder Mountain — 20 inches

Cherry Creek — 17 inches

Beaver Mountain — 11 inches

Location can also explain why the reports from the nation’s many Snow Telemetry (SnoTel) sites can differ wildly from those of a nearby ski area. Run by the United States Department of Agriculture mainly to track water resources, the automated SnoTel sites often are located at the base of a resort or in the neighboring town, and the lower elevation can lead to more conservative reports than the resort may be boasting.

Another variant is timing. If a resort only checks its sites once a day, the snow has time to settle, which could lead to under reporting of snow totals. Or it could melt or blow away, with the same result.

In most cases, however, Thayer said he believes the discrepancy comes down to the accuracy of the person or machine taking the measurements.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snowboarders are dwarfed by walls of snow, at Brighton Ski Resort, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

“I don’t think any of these are intentional. I don’t think they’re malicious in nature or anything like that,” he said. “I just think it’s human error.”

Many ski areas task ski patrollers or snowcat drivers with measuring snow totals and base depth because they’re the ones on the mountain at 5 a.m., allowing resorts to report by 6 a.m. Others, however, leave the duty up to an intern or other perhaps less invested or experienced employee. If the resorts don’t demand attention to detail, the numbers can get fuzzy.

But it’s good business to have high snowfall numbers, right? And right now, Utah has some of the highest season-to-date snowfall numbers in the country.

Jared Winkler, the senior director of marketing at Brighton, is well aware of the whispers going around about resorts fudging numbers to keep pace with their neighbors. They’ve been around for as long as he has — and he’s been riding there for more than four decades — but they’ve grown louder this season as Brighton has challenged Alta Ski Area for the most snowfall in the nation. Both have already streaked past the 500-inch milestone, reporting 529 and 533, respectively, with more snow in the forecast.

“It’s been a never-ending kind of local dispute,” Winkler said. “It’s like, ‘Why does Brighton’s base say this and Alta’s say that? Where are they getting that?”

Winker said he’s confident none of it is fabricated. In addition to fostering friendly rivalries, he said, the proximity of other resorts along the Wasatch Front leads to honesty. If one wanted to pad its snow totals, it would be easy to spot.

“We have Deer Valley, Park City, Alta and Snowbird and Solitude all around us,” he said. “And so people can kind of call the BS out real easy.”

These days that’s even more true than it was 20 years ago. With a plethora of weather and forecasting sites now at people’s fingertips, Thayer said more people are delving into the snow data. They’re wanting to see the inches stack up with their own eyes, which is also why snow stake cameras have gained popularity. In fact, Solitude jumped on the bandwagon Wednesday when it unveiled its snow stake cam, the first of its kind in Big Cottonwood Canyon. While they’re not an official measurement, snow cams can give skiers and snowboarders an idea of the depth and character of the powder.

Ideally, Thayer said he’d like every resort to report like Alta, which he called “the gold standard in snow reporting.” Thanks to the installation of a MesoWest weather station, an expensive academic version of a SnoTel site, measurements are taken hourly near the top of the Collins lift via sonar and automatically reported to an online database. Alta ski patrol then manually verifies that information at least twice a day well past the end of the season. The ski area’s publicly available logs go back decades. Meanwhile, those of most of its neighbors only go back about 12 years.

Thayer hopes the thirst for verified information will lead to more regulation of reporting by the ski industry. Resorts’ reputations are on the line, he said.

“Credibility matters with these resorts,” he said. “Over time, maybe it doesn’t matter for your average person who’s coming once a year, but as a skier going to a place like Alta that I know is reporting their snowfall accurately and I can verify it myself? That makes me feel much more confident as a skier that I’m going to go there and it’s going to be as good as I think it’s going to be.”

Inaccurate snow reports are an industry-wide issue, as evidenced by the Mount Hood hijinx (the colleagues found one resort made a reporting error and another didn’t report at all). Yet for all Thayer’s issues with the methods resorts use to measure snow here, he acknowledges Utah has some of the most credible reports in North America. That’s credit, he said, to Ski Utah “snow report maestro” Luke Ratto. Thayer said Ratto has been the bullwhip that has gotten all 15 of the state’s public resorts to report their snow totals by 6 a.m. most of the time. He also reaches out to resorts for answers when their reports appear inaccurate.

Still, more days than not, Thayer finds himself squinting at his computer screen trying to get the inches to add up.

“For me, it’s literally my job to report snow and stuff. And you think, ‘Well if you really spend all this time every day digging into it, you will figure it out and figure out the best way to get [an accurate number], and maybe that’s true,” he said. “But I find that the more you dig into this issue and are trying to figure it out, the more confused you get, the more frustrating it becomes.

“Honestly, I yearn for the times when I could just check one resort’s snow report and take their word for it.”

For what it’s worth, Deer Valley reported getting 25 fresh inches Wednesday, while Park City Mountain chimed in with 23. Sundance said it had 22 inches of powder and Powder Mountain 20. Even Cherry Creek near Logan got in on the foot-plus club with a reported 17 inches. However, its neighbor, Beaver Mountain, reported just 11 new inches.

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