Avalanche center faces budget cuts

SEATTLE — Backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, the weather service and the state Transportation Department, national parks and the U.S. Forest Service all depend on the work of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

Despite the importance of this regional program — especially in a dangerous avalanche season like this one when 9 people have died in the Washington — it is again facing a budget crisis.

“Financially, they’re hanging by a thread,” said Ted Buehner, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle. “A lot of agencies depend upon these guys, including us. Nearly all our mountain weather data comes from them.”

The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, which provides twice-daily avalanche-risk assessments and mountain weather forecasts, covering the Olympics and the Cascades down to Mount Hood, about 25,000 square miles.

The center is paid for by an unstable, cobbled-together funding package from numerous agencies and organizations. It’s forecasts are available to the public on the Web or by telephone (206-526-6677) and are also sent regularly to park rangers, road crews, ski patrollers, search-and-rescue organizations and others who have to make daily risk decisions that affect public safety.

But nobody has taken primary responsibility for financing the center.

“Lives are at stake here,” said state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle. “We should be thinking about how to expand the center’s reach rather than having to struggle to find funding.”

Jacobsen was a leader in passing legislation to provide stopgap funding for the center, through 2009, and pay for a two-year study aimed at figuring out how to reliably fund the region’s avalanche warning system. It has been 30 years coming.

“This has been going on for decades,” said Mark Moore, director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. Moore helped launch the center in 1975 with his mentor, Ed LaChapelle, a University of Washington geophysicist often called the “father of avalanche science.” Rich Marriott, a KING 5 meteorologist, also was a founder.

The idea was to create one of the premier avalanche forecasting and warning systems in an area known for its unpredictable and hazardous mountain weather.

More than three decades later, Moore and his mountain meteorologist colleagues Kenny Kramer and Garth Ferber are widely recognized in the avalanche science community for their expertise. But they are also recognized for their stubborn persistence in maintaining the program despite its chronic funding problems.

They work in a donated corner of the weather service station at Sand Point in Seattle, using donated equipment. Their annual budget of $300,000 or so pays mostly for their salaries and associated costs (such as maintaining the snow and rain gauges out in the mountains). Moore, Ferber and Kramer rotate shifts so that the avalanche forecasts are updated twice daily, seven days a week, from mid-November through April.

Their avalanche forecasts are widely regarded as valuable, but perhaps not as widely distributed as they could be because of cost constraints.

“The No. 1 job of any avalanche center is to get the word out to the community,” said Knox Williams, a Colorado-based avalanche expert who is serving as a consultant to the state funding study.

Williams agreed that the Northwest Center would need more funding, and perhaps staff, to provide that additional information. But he said it’s possible that a much more visual, user-friendly warning system could reach more people — and save more lives.

Williams’ report to the Legislature is due in a month.

“I can’t imagine the Northwest without its excellent avalanche forecasting system,” Williams said. “But for some reason, these kind of operations always have to struggle for support. If something up there isn’t done, after 2009, I don’t know if the Northwest avalanche center will exist.”

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