When the wind howls and the snow falls in the Flathead and Swan mountain ranges, the weather conditions are a guessing game. In those remote mountain peaks, there’s nowhere to obtain records and no way to collect data.
But that’s about to change. The Flathead Avalanche Center (FAC) installed a wind sensor on Mount Aeneas in the Swan Range this fall and plans to install two weather stations on Tunnel Ridge in the Middle Fork in the Flathead Range next summer.
While the Mount Aeneas station will exclusively monitor wind speed and wind direction, the two separate Tunnel Ridge stations will provide additional data.
Situated on an exposed ridgeline, the Tunnel wind station’s sensors will monitor wind speed, wind direction, temperature and relative humidity. The Tunnel snow station will be installed in a protected basin below the ridge, attached to solar panels that will charge the batteries and communicate data through free wave radio to Essex. The snow station’s sensors will measure snow depth, temperature and relative humidity, FAC Director Zach Guy said.
Officials are currently troubleshooting power issues on Mount Aeneas’ sensor, but it should be operational in the coming weeks, according to Guy.
The stations will help the avalanche center collect wind and weather data in the two ranges where there’s historically been an absence. The data will give forecasters more information to understand the snowpack and avalanche conditions, allowing them to write more accurate forecasts.
“We don’t have any idea how much it snows in the mountains after a storm,” Guy said. “Sometimes it’s a swing and a miss.”
With the new stations, weather data will now be available on a daily and hourly basis, Guy said, creating more accurate and up-to-date records.
“To understand what’s happening up there remotely is huge,” Guy said.
Despite the new weather stations, forecasters will still continue their same day-to-day operations, just with an added tool in the tool belt.
“We still run the same show, just more accurate to start with,” Guy said.
During the season, forecasters start at about 4 a.m. to produce a morning forecast, which is posted at 7 a.m. every day. Even with their new data-collecting tool, forecasters will continue going out into the field to make observations. Their observations will typically validate the forecast.
“In some ways we’re going into the field after we’ve got the product,” Guy said. “It all goes into the big picture. We’ll have more data to support our forecast.”
In addition to the avalanche center, the weather stations will also benefit aviation operations like Two Bear Air Rescue and fire management teams who rely on the weather to operate safely and predict fire activity.
Between fundraising, donations, a $5,000 grant from Flathead Electric Cooperative and $10,000 from BNSF Railway, FAC and Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center were able to fund the roughly $35,000 project.
Other weather stations include sensors on Big Mountain, owned by Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center and maintained by Whitefish Mountain Resort ski patrol, several stations on the floor of John F. Stevens Canyon and multiple sensors in Glacier National Park.
“This fills a huge void in our forecasting uncertainty and will significantly improve our forecast accuracy,” Guy said.