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Significant precipitation, fluctuating snow levels, and moderate winds will impact the West-South zone Wednesday night and Thursday creating dangerous avalanche conditions especially on the Cascade volcanoes and areas further south in the zone. Steer away from any open slope greater than 35 degrees when you find more than 6 inches of new snow.
Recent weather patterns seem to continually impact the West-South zone, and this series of systems are no different. The westerly flow with this wave of precipitation should favor areas around the volcanoes and to a lesser extent White Pass. Weather models keep the Crystal area in the rain-shadow of Mt Rainier. As a result, you’re likely to find the highest precipitation totals and avalanche danger in locations such as Paradise, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams. A slight rise in the snow levels Thursday could bring an upside-down nature to the new snow. You may find that avalanche issue you encounter blur the lines between wet and dry, and loose and slab.
Fluctuations in precipitations, temperatures, and winds over the past several days created a wide variety of snow surface conditions. Be prepared for deep wet snow, breakable crusts, firm surfaces, and even soft dry snow. Recent warm weather wreaked havoc on the lower elevation snowpack creating open creeks, holes near rocks, widening glide cracks, and even bare ground. Travel cautiously and anticipate these springtime hazards.
April 9th, 2019
The snowpack and weather have shifted solidly to spring-like conditions. A major warm-up started in mid-March with a prolonged period of strong sun and warm temperatures. This created a major difference between the snowpack on sunny slopes and that on shaded aspects. More recently, warm, wet, and sometimes weak spring storms have brought more rain than snow. The bulk of the precipitation with these storms focused on the southern forecast zones. Even so, mid-elevation rain established a dramatic snow line (about 4-4,500ft) below which the snowpack is minimal to non-existent in most zones. Going into the second week in April, intense snow and wind drove a prolonged period of High danger at Mt Hood.
A crown of a very large avalanche (D3+) above Mt. Hood Meadows resort. 04/08/2019. Photo Credit: Peter Moore.
Challenging Weather Forecasts
The Cascades have been experiencing unsettled spring weather with rain to many low and mid-elevation slopes and snow at upper elevations. Spring weather forecasts in the Cascades are notoriously challenging. With these storms, the weather models have been inconsistent and the accuracy has been limited to 12-24 hours, at best. A trend has been significant precipitation amounts for the Mount Hood area and other south-central Cascade volcanoes.
Very bare southeast aspects of Rock Mtn/Nason Ridge. April 2nd. Photo: Josh Hirshberg
From the peak height of snow in mid to late February through early April, mountain weather stations in the 4,000-5,000ft range showed an average of 27% decrease in height of snow. The percentage decrease ranged from 22-29%. This year's spring snowmelt is much earlier than normal. If you’re traveling in the mountains, the loss of snow coverage is most noticeable on southerly, sun-exposed slopes and below 4,000ft. On northerly aspects and slopes above 5,500ft, the snowpack has seen less dramatic changes and has even maintained some dry layers. On upper elevation shaded slopes there’s still potential for large wet slab avalanches with prolonged warm temperatures or high elevation rain events.
A natural loose wet avalanche (D1), Lichtenberg Mtn, N, 4,850ft. 4/7/2019. Photo: Will Govus
Spring avalanche considerations
As you head into the mountains there are a few questions to ask yourself common to spring avalanche conditions:
Can you trigger avalanches due to new snow?
If so, would they be storm slabs or wind slabs? And where?
Can you trigger avalanches due to warming or rain?
Will recent snow be warmed enough to result in loose wet avalanches?
Will these avalanches be predictable point releases or more destructive wet slabs or gouging loose wet avalanches?
What are the recent high and low temperatures and the forecasted temperatures during the time you’ll be in the mountains?
How is the cloud cover contributing to the melting or freezing of surface snow? Did clear skies allow for a sufficient overnight freeze? Will the sun be strong enough to weaken surface layers?
Debris from a natural loose wet avalanche (D2), Lichtenberg Mtn, SW, 5,000ft. 4/7/2019. Photo: Josh Hirshberg
In addition to daily avalanche hazard, the early snowmelt has created other travel considerations. Some roads and lower elevation slopes may not have enough continuous snow coverage for travel on snow machines. Holes melted around rocks, trees, and creeks could create a fall hazard. When nighttime temperatures and cloud cover allow for surface freezes, bring appropriate equipment to mitigate slip and fall hazard on steep slopes.
The last daily avalanche forecast for all zones will be issued for April 14th. Statewide mountain weather forecast and weekly avalanche condition advisories will continue through May. The weather station data is available year round. Keep checking the advisories and help us out by submitting observations when you are in the mountains.
Glide avalanches and holes opening up in rocky terrain on an east aspect of Mount Herman. 4/3/19 Photo: Andrew Kiefer
Changes in snow level, precipitation intensity, and wind should create a stronger slab over weaker storm snow at mid and upper elevations. Avoid all open slopes greater than 35 degrees in areas where you find more than 6 inches of new snow. Storm slabs may grow larger throughout the day as more snow accumulates. You can use small slope tests, hand pits, and shovel tilt tests to confirm the upside-down nature of the new snow. Be especially leery of areas where the wind drifts the new snow into deeper and potentially more reactive slabs. Give wind drifted slopes a wide berth.
Release of a soft cohesive layer (a slab) of new snow that breaks within the storm snow or on the old snow surface. Storm-slab problems typically last between a few hours and few days. Storm-slabs that form over a persistent weak layer (surface hoar, depth hoar, or near-surface facets) may be termed Persistent Slabs or may develop into Persistent Slabs.
You can reduce your risk from Storm Slabs by waiting a day or two after a storm before venturing into steep terrain. Storm slabs are most dangerous on slopes with terrain traps, such as timber, gullies, over cliffs, or terrain features that make it difficult for a rider to escape off the side.
Storm slabs usually stabilize within a few days, and release at or below the trigger point. They exist throughout the terrain, and can be avoided by waiting for the storm snow to stabilize.
Aspects: All aspects.
Elevations: All elevations.
Expected Size1 - 1
You’ll be most likely to see loose wet avalanches in locations where the storm begins as snow then transitions to rain later in the day Thursday. Be on the lookout for new rollerballs, wet heavy surface snow, or rain on drier snow. Don’t get surprised by natural loose wet avalanches during periods of moderate rain. Use caution if you travel on or under any steep slope where you suspect wet snow exist.
At the lowest elevations, the snowpack has seen a lot of water. We expect it will handle this rain event well, however, don’t rule out a wet avalanche especially in locations that accumulate an inch or more of rain.
Release of wet unconsolidated snow or slush. These avalanches typically occur within layers of wet snow near the surface of the snowpack, but they may quickly gouge into lower snowpack layers. Like Loose Dry avalanches, they start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. They generally move slowly, but can contain enough mass to cause significant damage to trees, cars or buildings. Other names for loose-wet avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose Wet avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.
Travel when the snow surface is colder and stronger. Plan your trips to avoid crossing on or under very steep slopes in the afternoon. Move to colder, shadier slopes once the snow surface turns slushly. Avoid steep, sunlit slopes above terrain traps, cliffs areas and long sustained steep pitches.
Several loose wet avalanches, and lots of pinwheels and roller balls.
Loose wet avalanches occur where water is running through the snowpack, and release at or below the trigger point. Avoid terrain traps such as cliffs, gullies, or tree wells. Exit avalanche terrain when you see pinwheels, roller balls, a slushy surface, or during rain-on-snow events.
Elevations: Below Treeline.