Behind the scenes of Whistler Blackcomb’s weather forecasting

Resort staff challenge social media criticisms of inflated snow reports

Ski areas have long been criticized for exaggerating snow reports in an effort to drive skier visits, but in a special media tour of the snow forecasting facilities last week, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) distanced itself from that perception.

“It’s critical,” said Doug MacFarlane, WB’s director of operations, concerning transparency of reporting accurate weather information. “Our reputation in the industry can be affected by misinformation, so we want to make sure that information that goes out publicly on behalf of WB is accurate.”

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Media representatives were brought to the weather station at Pig Alley (1650m) on Whistler Mountain, where the official snow report readings are taken three times daily, twice by forecaster staff and once by late night grooming staff to allow the daily

“Today on the Mountain” report to be issued by the marketing department at 5:30 a.m., as well as the snowphone script to be recorded by 6 a.m.

Once forecasters have got up the mountain in the morning to take their own readings, a second, more accurate report is issued by 7:30 a.m. New snow is measured both manually by a ruler and digitally by a laser instrument at Pig Alley and the base depth is noted against a measuring stick in a fenced off, undisturbed weather plot. Measurements are not taken in the alpine due to external factors such as wind, which can accumulate significantly more or less snow than at Pig Alley depending on the wind’s direction.

While teams of forecasters on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains work extensively to produce backcountry advisories and weather models for internal use, the five day forecast on the WB website is actually issued by third party consultant RWDI. Senior Meteorologist Uwe Gramann issues weather forecasts for resorts and guiding operations all over B.C. and the data from his weather models is populated directly into the WB website. This is the reason why the WB website readings will occasionally have anomalous readings such as snow falling with a freezing level of 2800m, despite Whistler Peak only having an elevation of 2180m.

“We want to paint a picture of what you’re going to encounter when you walk off the gondola,” said MacFarlane. “We’ve had some challenges with (Uwe’s) program and what it’s auto-populating. We’re in communication with him to adjust that if we see there’s an issue with his freezing levels.”

MacFarlane said that WB has always used a third party for its weather forecasting to avoid the perception that its staff is manipulating figures.

“We’re insulated from that,” he said. “We don’t want to feel like we’re controlling it or using it as a marketing piece.”

In 2009, two associate professors at Dartmouth College — both avid snowsports enthusiasts —published a report titled “Wintertime for Deceptive Advertising?” which investigated the snow reports of 437 resorts in North America between 2004 and 2008 and compared the snowfall figures to regional government weather data. The report showed — statistically — that ski reports self-reported 23 per cent more snowfall on the weekends. The statistics also showed that near the end of the sample period, a new iPhone application that let skiers share information on resort conditions caused exaggeration to fall sharply, particularly at resorts with better iPhone reception.

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