Monday, November 5, 2012

Save Stampede Pass Weather Station!

If you asked me what was the most unique and important weather observation location in Washington State, I could answer without hesitation: Stampede Pass.

 Located at approximately 4000 ft in the central Washington Cascades, Stampede Pass is a rarity:  a full National Weather Service station at high altitude that has been around since late 1943.  It provides a rare, continuous record of how the higher-altitude climate over our region has changed during the past 65 years.  And it has been a key station supporting local weather prediction and has helped guide general aviation flights across the Cascades.

Stampede Pass Weather Station during the summer (the primary instruments are elevated for obvious reasons0
A view of Stampede Pass station during winter around 1990
But the existence of the Stampede Pass weather station is now threatened by financial pressure on the National Weather Service, with the Seattle  NWS office planning on terminating the station and moving the equipment down to Snoqualmie Pass.   As I will describe in this blog, such a move would be unfortunate in many ways:  undermining our ability to document local climate change, removing an important data location for local weather prediction and mountain forecasting, and potentially reducing aviation safety.

Stampede Pass is located near the red A.
The NWS motivation for the move is that communication over buried telephone cables has become less reliable.   But they have not explored other communication approaches, such as using cell phone technology.  They also note that it would be easier and less expensive to service instrument in Snoqualmie Pass, instead of up in the hills at Stampede, where a snowmobile is needed in winter. 

Until the mid 1990s, Stampede Pass was manned (or womened!), allowing high-quality manual observations.  I used to enjoy skiing up there with some students and visiting the warm, cozy residence/station.  Then it was automated to save money, fortunately, with the gold-standard ASOS equipment.

So why is it important to save Stampede Pass weather station?

First, because it is the only long-period, high-elevation weather station  in our region.  If we are interested in knowing how our mountain climate has changed over a long period of time, it is critical to maintain high level stations like Stampede.  If you are interested in determining the impacts of greenhouse warming, you really need observation sites like Stampede.  An important point is that Stampede Pass has stayed rural without nearby development over the years--few observing stations have this invaluable aspect.  I have used data from that station in my own research to understand trends in freezing level and snowpack.


Second, Stampede Pass provides a critical service for aviation.  Not only does it have a full array of surface observations, but its instruments include a ceilometer that tell the height of cloud base.  Many general aviation aircraft cross the Cascades over Stampede Pass, and those folks (particularly those without instrument rating), need the know where the cloud base is.  

Some of you may remember that the NWS terminated the Stampede Pass weather station for a year back in 1989...again to save money.  Several private aircraft crashed in the Cascades during that year, and the hue and cry by local meteorologists, the aviation community, TV weathercasters like Jeff Renner, Steve Pool and Harry Wappler, and others led to the reinstatement of the station. 

Third, Snoqualmie Pass is already heavily instrumented with data from Washington DOT, ski areas, and NW Avalanche stations.  Snoqualmie Pass is not only 1000 ft lower than Stampede, and the air moving through this narrow gap is not representative of the air flow crossing the Cascades.

Local Terrain around the Stamped Pass Weather Station (green diamond)
Stampede Pass also provides real time weather information at a height (4000 ft) where a lot of hiking and recreation takes place, and provides information on the depth of the shallow cold air that can snake its way through Snoqualmie Pass below.

I am not the only local meteorologist worried about the proposed termination.  For example, Dr. Nick Bond, Washington State Climatologist, and the office's chief meteorologist (Karen Bumbaco) have recently written a letter (here) that speaks against this move.

Both local meteorologists and residents should provide their feedback to the National Weather Service about this proposal if we are to have any hope in saving this station.  It is ironic that our nation could afford to build and man this station in 1943, during a major war, but we can't maintain this critical facility today when our nation is so much wealthier and the need for a permanent resident is gone.

 Please express your opinions to the area manager at the Seattle forecast office:  Dr. Brad Colman (brad.colman@noaa.gov).

15 comments:

Erik said...

wow, a manned weather station in the Cascades! Are there any still in existence today? Are they hiring??

David Cuthbert said...

How much would it cost to keep it open for the next (say) five years? I'll open my checkbook...

Gawdger said...

If communication is the problem, then this should be a relatively easy fix. The major wireless companies deploying LTE technology had to determine an alternative telco backhaul system, in lieu of stringing fiber to their mountaintop installations (Expensive!). Microwave being the go to solution. There are a number of wireless installations to the SE of the NWS station. Perhaps a line-of-sight from the NWS station to the cell towers or direct from the NWS station to the telco sources available at Snoqualmie pass. There should be ample solutions in this area compared to the expense of moving the entire NWS station.

Unknown said...

Cliff-

Is someone still measuring snowpack at Stampeded Pass?

I was an observer at KSEA in the 1990's and knew a couple guys who used to snowmobile up to the pass.

That would still require someone to go up from time to time to measure the snowpack. Do you have this data?

Murdoch said...

Cliff,
You mentioned in your blog post that you've visited this site with your students in the past. Perhaps you could consider proposing some kind of partnership with the NWS to provide routine maintenance, calibrations, data downloads, etc... as part of your class curriculum. Something to consider, could be a win-win, keep the station and provide a new training facility.

Curt Kinchen said...

As a general aviation pilot, I cannot emphasize enough how critical the Stampede weather station is to our community. It is the only aviation weather reporting station in the Cascades with ceiling and visibility reporting. It's used to such a great extent that when the weather is marginal the phone number to get the report is continually busy.

When attempting to cross the Cascades pilots almost universially use Stampede pass when the weather is less than perfect. It is a more open pass and much safer than Snoqualimie, affording pilots room to turn around when approaching from either direction. Combine that with the weather reporting, giving very reliable prediction of what you'll see when crossing from east to west makes it the way to go.

Kyle Hill said...

Why doesn't Stampede Pass show up on Weather Underground with those records?

All you get is Yakima which doesn't do squat for the mountains.

I used to enjoy the interface of Weather Underground stations but they stopped reporting snow several years ago.


God that captcha was a pain! I don't post on blogs much because of that as it zaps any remaining positive energy out of me.

Joe said...

I am not sure exactly where the NWS site is related to the communications sites but the WSDOT and others have microwave connections back to the Seattle area. Seems they could have worked with one of the communications site owners on Stampede Pass.

Randy Cryer said...

Hey Cliff,
I always enjoyed your visits to Stampede Pass

Weather Station. As you know, I was the Station

Manager at SMP for a decade. I was there from July

of 1983 until it automated in 1994. If there is

anything you need to know about that station, I can

pretty much tell you or know where to find it. I

agree with the comments made about wireless

communications from the station with today's

technology. The old phone line that runs through

the Tacoma Water Shed is not buried. That is why

it was always going down. Loggers, snow and Ice,

falling trees, rocks, and animals were all causes

of line failures over the years. The line could

not be buried due to environmental reasons.
In answer to the snow measuring, no manual

measurements are taken any longer, however, there

is a SNOTEL site near the station that gives out

automated readings. Due to budget constraints, the

manual verifications during the winter are no

longer happening.
David, the cost of running the station with manned

observers was about $125K/yr back in the 90's.

There are additional costs to maintain the

equipment and house as well as fuel and maintenance

of the snow cat, snow mobile and 4x4. The elevated

ASOS equipment cost over a half million to install

at that remote site. It is much cheaper to

maintain these days due to the multitude of

stations and availability of that more modern

equipment.
I like the idea of a cooperative working situation

with the University, State aviation agencies and

NOAA. It could be done, but I would insist on

manned observations to augment the ASOS at least 12

hrs/day. I have been reading about some of the

aviation accidents that have occured since the

station automated. I fully believe that many of

those could have been avoided had there been eyes

at the station. I can explain and show evidence if

anyone is interested. I have years of it.
In any case, you want to know more about SMP, I

would be happy to talk to you at length.
Always good to see you.
Take Care,
Randy Cryer
The Weatherman Inc.
By the way, thanks for using my photos of the

station in your blog. I have more... lots more...

Quentn55 said...

Manual snow measurements are taken at the NRCS Snotel site just below the NWS gauge on a monthly basis by our staff here at the USBR in Yakima. This data is critical to our run-off forecast. We have personnel going there 1x/month Dec-June. I would hate to see this station abandoned. Maybe the NWS and our office could work together keeping the station viable.

dbostrom said...

Because of various work projects I've become pretty deeply experienced w/wireless telemetry including building systems able to run without any power grid connections. I think the NWS would be surprised at how inexpensively systems suitable for their requirements can be built. I'm sure I'm not the only person who'd be delighted to volunteer a little mental sweat and elbow grease to help keep this site running, if indeed telemetry is a major determining factor.

It's positively tragic to truncate long data series over short wavelength financial pressures. Lots of supposed "savings" of this kind are available but the price of failure is too high.

c180tom said...

I absolutely second Curt Kinchen’s remarks on behalf of the pilot community. Snoqualmie pass is truly treacherous in low weather conditions. The Seattle aviation chart pass indicators misleadingly point up the south fork of the Snoqualmie river when the westbound course should be an immediate sharp turn to the left.

KSMP provides weather right at the pass so you know you can be safe before you go. Snoqualmie, on the other hand would be problematic for locating a weather station useful to pilots as the weather is often drastically worse on the west side, where, as Curt said, there is no place to turn around. The July 17, 1999 Granite Mt. crash of a twin engine Cessna 337 is just one example, where an experienced Alaska pilot and his Catholic priest friend were fatally injured. Coincidentally another Cessna 337 from Wenatchee made it to Auburn, crossing SMP about 20 minutes after the crash in Snoqualmie.

What’s the best way to help? I’d like to volunteer along with dbostrom (telemetry) to help with backup transportation (Meany Lodge sno cat?), longer duration propane tank, etc., anything to keep that ASOS up and running.
Tom Jensen

Molly Flanagan Littlefield said...

As a 3 pilot family, we find SMP our preferred way to cross the Cascades. Having current wx reporting is an essential tool. SMP has a road for emergency landing and room to make a 180 turn should conditions deteriorate. Should the wx stations cease to operate, it would be a tremendous safety loss to general aviation.

Randy Cryer said...

Not sure if my comment got posted.
Cliff,
One thing that the government may not have considered and may not realize is that the site must be returned to its original state. If the station is closed, the lease requires that all the buildings, equipment, instrumentation, garbage, etc all has to be removed from the mountain. That means a lot of demolition and dump truck loads of cement from the foundation and basement. The fuel tanks, and so on. That could be a huge cost and a huge loss of a historical site. Hey, there's a thought. Get it put on the national historic register...

Andy Haner said...

Dr. Brad Colman has retired. Comments can now be sent to NWS Seattle's Acting Meteorologist in Charge, Kirby Cook, at kirby.cook@noaa.gov.