Park City resorts can’t fudge snow reports
Earlier this month, Dartmouth College economists Eric Zitzewitz and Jon Zinman garnered national media attention for calling ski resorts for allegedly exaggerating snowfall reports on the weekends.
The two claimed that from 2004 to 2008, resorts reported 23 percent greater snowfall on weekends a strange coincidence unsubstantiated by government measuring stations.
National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney said that would never happen in Park City for two reasons: First, the resorts would get caught too easily. Second, it would endanger their ability to effectively warn of avalanche risks.
To get an idea of how much the National Weather Service trusts self reporting from the resorts, visit the agency’s Web site to see what it reports at http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/slc/snow/ . Underneath the numbers is the following attribution: "Ski area data provided by Ski Utah." Where does Ski Utah get its numbers? The resorts, says communications director Jessica Kunzer.
"I find the (resorts’) ski patrol gauges to be really accurate," McInerny said.
Each resort’s marketing department gets its numbers from the ski patrols, which are charged with mitigating avalanche risk on the mountain. Inaccurate data could result in inappropriate avalanche control and cost lives, he explained.
Why couldn’t the marketing departments fudge numbers? Many of Utah’s resorts are in close proximity Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort, for example. If one consistently reports more snowfall than the other, complaints are made, he said.
Still, drastic variations can be found from time to time, and that comes from the inexact methods used to measure snowfall. Location for measuring is key, McInerny said.
A gauge can’t be sheltered by trees or be exposed to too much wind that might blow snow away from, or toward the gauge, skewing the result. If the location is right, a simple board with a ruler is all it takes to see how much falls in a given period. Most resorts have three such stations, he said.
The government’s gauge is located in Thaynes Canyon and is managed by the Utah Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Tim Bardsley, a hydrologist with the service, said the purpose of the gauge is to measure snow pack and water stored in the snow. Inches fallen are irrelevant since that data doesn’t give the service any indication of how much water will be available the coming spring.
Snow pack inches are recorded, however, although that’s a different measure. Those inches can be found ftp://http://ftp.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/data/snow/snotel/tk/7day_reports/ut7day.txt .
According to the site, Jan. 21 and Jan. 22 the days of the last big storm the snow pack increased in depth exactly the same number of inches as the resorts reported.
Jake Hutchinson, director of The Canyons Resort ski patrol, said his staff measures snowfall every morning around 4 or 5 a.m. at a study plot just off of Kokopelli ski run at about 9,000 feet.
"We measure and maintain four different snow stakes, all for purposes of accurate snow reporting and avalanche forecasting," he said via email.
The four stakes study total depth, snowfall during 24-hour intervals, snowfall during hourly intervals, and snow fall from single storms.
Krista Parry, director of marketing and communications for PCMR, said her resort reports data from the measuring stakes maintained by the National Weather Service on the mountain.
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