Fri, January 26, 2024

Elements of the forecast: Survey results are in

Many of you participated in the survey we posted at the end of last season trying to gain a little insight on what people are finding useful in the advisory. While we were targeting info specifically on the ‘Problem Rose’ icon we implemented last season, we were also able to gain some insight on what people are finding useful in the forecast. Thank you to everyone who was able to participate in the survey- we use this info to make our products more useful to the backcountry community. We thought you all might be interested in seeing the results of the survey and a little about the changes we’ve made since we put this survey out last spring.

1. There is a wide range of experience and user types in our small community

Over the three-week period in April when our survey was open, we had 283 people respond. The majority (52%) of those participants had taken a Recreation 1 (or Level 1) avalanche course. While most people that took the survey were primarily recreational users, 14% of the participants were professionals that had worked as guides, patrollers, educators or forecasters. While our survey reached users with many different modes of transportation, the overwhelming majority indicated their primary use was backcountry skiing or snowboarding, followed by snowmachining and snowmachine-assisted skiing/snowboarding. We are working on getting equal input from our motorized and non-motorized friends.

The majority of our respondents were skiers or snowboarders that had taken a Rec 1 or equivalent avalanche course.


2. You are getting our information through a variety of formats

Most people that took the survey were reading the forecast from the website (69% of participants) or in their email (17% of participants). We also saw a large number of people responding that their primary source of avalanche info is through the information we publish on our social media channels (13% of participants). This is a challenge for us. We post info on social media to make it easily accessible, but our short videos and captions are not enough to capture the nuance of what is going on in the mountains. It’s a good reminder to us to make sure we are putting out quality information on the social media channels, but at the same time we need to figure out how to direct more attention to the full forecast product.


3. Some elements of the forecast are more useful than others.

We probably didn’t need a full-blown survey to make that statement. But, we didn’t have any data to support our hunch that some parts of the avalanche forecast are more useful than others. When asked to rank the elements of the forecast from most useful to least useful, people generally found the danger rating and avalanche problem type to be the most useful elements. Avalanche size and the problem rose emerged as the least useful. However, when asked ‘how helpful was the avalanche problem rose in choosing which terrain to use for a given day’, most participants indicated that they were getting some use out of the problem rose. At first glance those two results seem at odds with each other. We interpret that result as saying that each of the five elements we investigated must provide some value, if the element that is ranked as the least useful among the five still has significant value as a trip planning tool. As a sidenote, 22% of responders did not notice that we had added the problem rose to the avalanche forecast at the beginning of last season.

Participants ranked the Danger Rating and Avalanche Problem Type as the most useful elements of the forecast, with the avalanche size and the problem rose as the least useful (top). Despite being ranked as the least useful element, responders also showed that the problem rose did help in the trip planning process (bottom).

4. Your candid feedback was very much appreciated

The last section of our short survey asked for any kind of feedback on the problem rose or on the CNFAC operations in general, and the responses were great. It sounds like people like to watch the videos we record in the field, so we continue to do that even though none of us feel very comfortable in front of the camera. We also got some mixed responses on more subtle items (some people asking us to speak more about surface conditions while others asking us to shut up when the skiing and riding are good), so for now we’ll just keep trying to figure it out as we go. In addition to these smaller comments, we saw a few bigger themes that seemed to be quite common.

There were a handful of people that wished we would be more selective with the aspects we are highlighting on the problem rose. We wish we could do that too, but we’re bound by whatever the snowpack is doing. The fact of the matter is, for most days during the bulk of the winter season we just don’t tend to have aspect-dependent problems. There are always exceptions to the rule, but since we see so little solar input between November and February, we rarely have avalanche problems that will be reliably predictable by aspect alone. (This is a good reminder that we should start seeing more noticeable solar impacts in the next few weeks).

The wind would be the other key player that may have a significant aspect component, but because of all of the drastic microclimate trends we have in our little advisory area we cannot reliably rule out a wind slab problem on any side of the compass even if we know the dominant wind direction in the region. We see this every time we compare the wind direction on Max’s, Seattle Ridge, Sunburst, and Mile 43. They vary just enough that it would be misleading to try to leave an aspect unshaded.

Whether the process is driven by the sun or the wind, we need to have a high level of confidence (low uncertainty) to leave specific boxes unchecked for each avalanche probem. For most of the season, the clearest distinction between generally safe and generally concerning slopes is closely tied to rain/snow lines. As a result, our avalanche problem rose ends up dividing avalanche problems into elevation bands much more often than drawing lines around aspects. However, we will see aspect-dependent avalanche problems in the spring once we start seeing wet avalanches start on southerly and easterly aspects before moving to northerly and westerly aspects.

The other main theme was a desire for more coverage outside of Turnagain Pass. We’re happy to be expanding this season, with three new forecasters providing information for the Chugach State Park, Summit Lake, and Seward areas. This growth process will be very dynamic for us and we expect to continue to make changes over the next few seasons.

Finally, we had multiple people mention the need for improved mapping products for our area. This is an ongoing project for us, and one that CNFAC forecaster John Sykes has been putting a ton of time into behind the scenes. These maps will provide information that will help folks minimize avalanche exposure when planning for a day in the mountains. There is very little room for error in these products, and we are now in the process of doing some ground-truthing, but keep an eye out in the near future for some digital mapping products that will help in your trip planning process.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the survey! We’re always curious if our messages are hitting the mark, and we love to hear what you have to say. These forecast products we put out are for you all, so we’ll keep trying to make them as useful and as accurate as possible.