Interview by Craig C. Rowe
At risk of disparaging the undulating golden beauty of the Sierra Nevada foothills, they’re often the reason why a promised powder day might peter out. It’s because of something called “orographic lift.”
But esoteric terminology won’t cut it — I want someone to blame.
So, I tapped on Open Snow, scrolled to the little bearded head on top, and contacted Bryan “BA” Allegretto, the popular app’s co-founder, Truckee resident, and chief meteorologist for the Tahoe region. If anyone can expound on why Tahoe winters range from weeks of shear-pin-breaking atmospheric rivers to sunny, any-inch-will-do letdowns, it’s the guy who’s been with the now-ubiquitous ski resort weather tool from day one.
Here’s what he had to say:
How did you get into forecasting for Open Snow?
I was already forecasting here in Tahoe. I had a site called Tahoe Weather Discussion. It was a hobby for me. I was working in the ski resorts, in the business department running numbers. (Bryan studied accounting in addition to weather.) But I was storm chasing still, and started the blog so people would stop asking me to put them on my email list, which is exactly what was happening to Joel, too. His site was called Colorado Powder Forecast.
Joel is Joel Gratz, BA’s Colorado-based partner in Open Snow. The two decided around the same time to start national versions of their respective websites and agreed to combine them into what is now opensnow.com. The site and companion mobile app offer weather reports and mountain conditions for resorts around the world. To understand how BA’s reports come together demands some historical context on forecasting.
When we started launching satellites that could track weather … it was revolutionary. Instead of someone calling you from the other side of the world saying, ‘Something’s headed your way,’ now we can see a storm coming. Then, the National Weather Service was set up as a safety service to let the public know when a hurricane or tornado was coming, or a big snowstorm.
In that public safety effort is where we find the first fissure of discord between antsy ski bums and seasoned forecasters.
I always have to remind people of that in the winter. ‘Well, the National Weather Service is saying up to 4 feet and you’re only saying 2 feet.’ They have to say that. They have to let you know the worst-case scenario in case you’re traveling through the Sierra. That’s their job. I’m not going to sit there and tell you to expect 4 feet at Squaw tomorrow because you’ll want to murder me when it’s only 18 inches. Our roles are different.
In the same way that Zillow has made us all “experts” on property value, micro-forecasting apps like Open Snow make everyone aware of weather for whatever outdoor sport they prefer. But similar to home value, there’s much more to the bottom line. Geography, for example.
Being in a maritime climate, we get Pacific air with our storms, they have more moisture and they’re warmer. Because the air isn’t as dry and the mountains not as tall, we get screwed. The Rockies don’t have to deal with that because the air is drier and the mountains are taller. They don’t deal with snow lines in their forecasts, either, which is a super complex added element, especially when snow levels are rising and falling throughout the same storm. I’ve seen it raining on Donner Summit but snowing on the east side of Tahoe.
You may hear people flatly explain that this year’s La Niña pattern is to blame for our slow start. BA’s not having it.
Northern California and Tahoe aren’t really tied to El Niño and La Niña. We’re always in the middle — it can be above or below average with either one. A strong La Niña tends to tilt slightly above average, actually, because they’re typically colder as you’re getting the northern branch of the jet stream coming down from the Gulf of Alaska. We can have below average precipitation but above average snowfall, because we’ll have a colder storm with higher snow ratios, meaning more snow depth from less water.
BA says that people prepare themselves for our fickle winters. He and his team actually don’t catch too much blame for less-than-stellar conditions.
They’re emotionally ready for it. They’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s just California.’ But, it was worse in the beginning … we’ve gained trust. They know we do all we can to be honest and accurate. They know there’s no conspiracy. We have a pretty loyal following.
If you say something nasty, you’ll get jumped on pretty quickly.
Sometimes the comment section will swell, and it’s usually under the same circumstances each time. [For example] low pressure swings through the Pacific Northwest, a cold front comes through, and we get three to six hours of heavy snow on a Monday. Then it clears, and everyone goes skiing. We’ll see a break, and the center of low pressure tracks behind the front straight through Tahoe, and we’ll get another foot of snow on Tuesday. Well, the people who can only ski Monday get mad because we forecasted 2 feet, but they only saw a foot. The storm wasn’t over.
There’s some old-fashioned sales involved at times, BA admits. He uses the word “should” a lot, and never “guarantees” anything or says “will.”
There’s an art form to how you present it so expectations are not overblown. Snow levels can blow you up, too, and people just flip out if it’s raining at their house but snowing on the mountain. Look at the elevations. Don’t just look at the 8,000-foot mark on the mountain where it’ll be 2 feet, look at the 6,000-foot mark too, where it says zero accumulation. Don’t blame me for rain at your house.
In case you’re curious, this is supposed to be a strong La Niña year.
But you didn’t hear that from me.