Will snow be an Olympic no-show in Vancouver?
Weather forecasting is so important for an Olympics in the snow that the Canadian government has loaned Olympic organizers 15 meteorologists and a ton of high-tech equipment.
Seattle Times staff reporter
You want to be on the spot?
How about being Chris Doyle, the chief meteorologist for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver?
Weather forecasting is so important for an Olympics in the snow that the Canadian government has loaned the organizers 15 meteorologists and 60 surface weather stations. In the first days, they'll provide hourly forecasts for literally every ski run.
What they can't produce is snow.
As seems to happen with every Winter Olympics, no matter what part of the world, weather problems have suddenly appeared.
With opening day a little less than a month away, the weather in Vancouver was pretty much as in Seattle — last week, really, really heavy rain and unseasonably warm temperatures (that would be 8 to 9 degrees in Canada, or in the high 40s here).
This week, the warm temperatures will continue, with rain and showers forecast.
The thing is, in Seattle we don't have a major ski resort that overlooks the city and is a half-hour drive away.
But that's the case in Vancouver with Cypress Mountain, one of the four outdoor venues for the Olympics. (The others are at Whistler, some 80 miles north, and have enough snow.) Three ski events and three snowboard events will be held at Cypress.
So anybody in downtown Vancouver, getting drenched in another downpour, could gaze up and wonder: Will there be a snow crisis for Cypress Mountain?
"There are some people who are concerned," says Doyle.
The 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games organizers say not to worry.
They tell how 35 snow-making guns at Cypress have converted 21 million gallons of water into snow that has been stockpiled all over the mountains. Mounds of natural snow also have been stockpiled.
A big pile of snow melts a lot slower because there is less surface area.
In lower elevations at Cypress, he says, mounds of snow are covered with a tarp to keep warm rain off.
There was good news on Thursday and Friday, when says Doyle, two feet of snow fell at the top of Cypress, and six inches fell at the bottom.
On Sunday, though, the Cypress Mountain Web site had this report for new snow in the last 24 hours: 0 centimeters.
The organizers were cautious enough last week that on Wednesday the ski area at Cypress was closed to the public — 2-½ weeks earlier than planned — to "preserve and protect the integrity of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing courses" for the Olympics.
At that point, the snow guns weren't usable at Cypress because it was too warm. The machines work by using compressed air to atomize water droplets, which then turn to ice as they fall to the ground in freezing temperatures.
Recreational skiers are familiar with snow guns, often seeing them high up on a tower. Either using a fan or compressed air, the guns shoot the atomized water droplets over the slope, allowing the new snow to fall as it would naturally.
Doyle can provide a certain amount of short-term reassurance to nervous types. It's going to be cooler this week, with snow at higher elevations, he said. Beyond that: who knows?
In Seattle, weather guru Cliff Mass — the University of Washington atmospheric-science professor with his own weather blog — extends his sympathies.
He says there are plenty of tools and expertise to make a fairly accurate forecast six hours, 12 hours, even 36 hours in advance. Not so good beyond that.
"At five to six days, we have some modest skills that start to slide downhill quite substantially," says Mass. "By the time you get to seven or eight days, the forecast has declined to such a point you might as well forecast average conditions."
If you think your life is messy, consider the sky above.
Meteorologists can plug in data from a particular time and place into the computer models, and try to simulate the future.
The problem, says Mass: "The atmosphere is a chaotic system in which every small difference in the initial state grows in time to such a large amount that we lose any forecast skills."
Too little, too much
For those who follow Winter Olympics, a story about potential weather problems is familiar news.
Sometimes there's too much weather, sometimes too little.
Various events at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, kept getting postponed because of snowstorms, heavy rain, sleet and even lightning.
In 2006, at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, the International Ski Federation complained there was insufficient snow cover in the upper part of the course. The organizers countered that there was plenty of artificial snow, and the Games went on.
In the end, the various events do seem to take place. Sponsors have to be satisfied.
The Vancouver Organizing Committee says in a news release that it has "the best ice meisters and snow makers in the business," along with 5 million more gallons of water in a reservoir to make the snow. That's in addition to those 21 millions gallons already converted to snow.
The committee says racers actually prefer artificial snow because it can be shaped more easily — that it's firmer than natural snow, making for a faster course.
So will there be or won't there be snow at the start of the Olympics?
Chris Doyle talks about how this is an El Niño year, a warming of the tropical Pacific sea surface that typically results in milder conditions on the West Coast.
"Rain and/or snow, it could be either way," says Doyle. "It's a coin toss."
Or to put it in meteorological terms for predicting a weather event that far out, Doyle further explained, "A lot of things can happen."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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