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Wednesday, July 08, 2015
OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz starts summer mountain forecasts
Courtesy Joel Gratz
Arguably the best powder-predicting tool in Colorado, OpenSnow.com started in 2007 as one skier’s email list to friends.
Meteorologist Joel Gratz launchedColoradoPowderForecast.com a couple years later, and the site soon became OpenSnow.comafter he teamed up with Web developer and fellow meteorologist and skier Andrew Murray.
The site’s popularity and specialized forecasts snowballed over the years, and, this year, the business supported two full-time employees and six contracted regional forecasters in the winter.
Now, Boulder-based Gratz has returned to an email list for a new product: summer forecasts.
He delivers forecasts for eight mountain ranges in the state to inboxes on Mondays and Thursdays, hoping to gauge interest in weather reports for hikers, bikers, paddlers, climbers, runners and other lovers of Colorado summer activities.
Summer forecasting is the opposite of winter forecasting, said Gratz — who was called Snostradamus in a 2013 Outside magazine article.
In the winter, people look for those rare, standout powder days; while in the summer, outdoor enthusiasts want to avoid the few times when it’s raining.
WET BEGETS WET
Except so far this summer, rain has come on more days than not in Summit County and most of Colorado.
Just how wet has it been?
From May 1 through July 5, the weather station just east of Dillon recorded 4.08 inches of precipitation. That ranks that two-month period the 16th wettest in the last 107 years, Gratz said. The most precipitation ever recorded in that time was in 1949 when the station received 6.78 inches of water.
Since mid- to late-April, when a warm, dry trend reversed, the snow and then rain has persisted and much of the state has recorded above-average precipitation and even double-average in some spots.
“There’s no one reason for any specific type of weather,” he said, “but, you could probably think of this as being caused a lot by El Niño, which is getting quite strong.”
Though classified as moderate right now, the El Niño phenomenon has been increasing in strength through the spring and summer, he said, pushing up moisture from the southwest.
Meteorologist David Barjenbruch, with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said a Breckenridge station recorded 3.5 inches of water in the precipitation that fell in May and then 0.99 inches in June.
He said the wet weather has been caused by a large, upper-level disturbance sitting over the region for much of the spring and then a plume of subtropical moisture doing the same for the last few weeks bringing afternoon thunderstorms.
Normally, Coloradans enjoy a four- to six-week break between spring precipitation and monsoon season in July and August, Barjenbruch said; but this year, that lull lasted about a week and a half. In Summit, that translated to the last 10 days or so of June.
Looking forward, forecasts show wet weather continuing through Friday and then Summit should be drier and warmer for the weekend before showers return for much of the next week.
Barjenbruch said long-range High Country weather will be wetter and cooler than normal for the rest of the summer with an “enhanced monsoonal flow for most of the summer months” and occasional warmer, drier periods in between.
In other words, Gratz said, “We have been wet, we are wet and we’re going to continue to be wet.”
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
What sets Gratz’ previous online forecasts apart is they aren’t just dry numbers produced by a machine.
This new summer venture will stay true to the spirit of OpenSnow.com and its often humorous storytelling written by an actual person, he said. “That’s what people like, and that’s what we enjoy doing.”
In the future as the business produces even more specialized forecasts, he said he plans to leverage computer-modeling tools that have drastically improved in recent years and incorporate the personal touch that people value into more automated forecasts.
One thing the computer models haven’t quite figured out is the positive feedback of rain.
“When it rains a lot, the ground is really moist, and that moisture helps fuel additional storms,” Gratz said. With all the recent precipitation, “if you see a dry forecast, I wouldn’t take that at face value.”
He’s adding more education elements to his forecasts as well, so people can understand why and how the weather patterns work. For example, he has been writing about which direction backpackers can look for approaching storms to gauge whether a storm cloud will hit them and when.
He said he briefly forayed into summer forecasts in 2010 with a site called DontGetZapped.com as a way of helping folks understand thunderstorms and reduce their risk of getting struck by lightning.
“Lightning is the weather event, actually, that scares me the most because of the random nature of where it strikes,” he said. “I don’t play around with it.”
He said he’s amazed by how few people are injured by lightning each year, despite the high number of people recreating above tree line, many without considering the weather or the rule about leaving exposed terrain by noon.
For folks who do pay attention to the forecast and notice a thunderstorm won’t likely arrive until much later in the day, Gratz offered some advice.
“If the first storm isn’t going to come up until 3, I don’t leave any later; I’m just not as concerned about pushing the pace,” he said. “It’s always best to be a little more cautious than what the forecast shows.”