February 06, 2016

National Weather Service: Time to Fix the Stampede Pass Weather Station!

One of the most important weather stations of our area has been offline for the better part of last year, and was intermittent at best during the previous years:  the National Weather Service's  Stampede Pass weather station.  Located at 4000 ft at Stampede Pass in the central Washington Cascades, this reporting location provides key information for pilots, travelers across the mountains, and those attempting to understand how climate change is impacting the weather of our region.

To orient you, here is a map of the station's position.    Stampede Pass is a full National Weather Service/FAA ASOS station, with very high quality instrumentation.  In addition to standard observations (like temperature, pressure, and winds), it has a ceilometer (tells the altitude of the cloud base), freezing rain sensor, visibility sensor, and precipitation type sensor.  The ASOS observation system is the gold standard in the U.S., located at major and minor airports around the nation.

For civil aviation, the Stampede Pass weather station has been very important, since Stampede is one of the lowest passes across the Cascades and represents a relatively straight shot, unlike the dangerous hairpin turns of Snoqualmie.  Having ceiling and visibility information is important for flight safety.  

Stampede Pass provides a detailed view of the weather at crest level and helps characterize the meteorology of the central Cascades.   There is nothing remotely like it.  The NW Avalanche Center and WSDOT have some sensors at ski areas and on major roadways, but these have less weather parameters, often have poor exposure (e.g., the WSDOT roadway sensors), and are sometimes not available (avalanche sensors during the summer).   

In these days of concern about global warming, Stampede Pass is unique:  a high-altitude weather station in an area without development that goes back a very long time--in this case, since June 1935. Extraordinarily valuable and a terrible loss to have data collection there interrupted.

So what is the current situation?   The sensors are fine and being maintained.  The observations are being taken.  But the National Weather Service has had severe problems maintaining communication (i.e., telephone lines) to the station and the 1980s technology of ASOS observations can not store information for long.  Thus, not only is the information being lost for operational use, it is being lost for climate studies.  Very bad.

Take a look at a plot of temperatures at Stampede Pass (SMP) for the past few years.   You will see the big gaps.

Fixing the communications to Stampede Pass has been relatively low priority for the National Weather Service.   In January, there tried to set up an alternative approach using cell phone communication, but failed.  Perhaps one of the tech firms in town could help.

A major problem for Stampede Pass, and virtually all National Weather Service/FAA ASOS observations, is that the communications/data technology is from the 1980s.  I was at the Seattle NWS forecast office and they showed me how they communicate with local ASOS stations (in this case, Boeing Field).    They had to use an ancient 9600 baud telephone modem.   You remember those, with the blinking lights and strange sounds?   For younger folks probably haven't seen them, here is what one looks like.   They probably have them in Paul Allen's computer museum.

The National Weather Service and FAA need to modernize the data handling for the still important ASOS observational system, using 2016 data loggers, digital storage, and communication.  This is not rocket science and not expensive.

I think it is time for those of you who are interested in Stampede Pass to let NWS management know about your concerns.  The NWS Western Region is responsible for Stampede Pass:  so they are the ones to contact.  They have a web page to leave comments on:


 The director of the NWS Western Region is Grant Cooper (grant.cooper at noaa.gov)


  1. It seems to me that POTS (plain old telephone service) is likely the central culprit here. Unfortunately, the Washington State Attorney's Office data say that the telephone company (formerly US Worst) generates far more consumer complaints than does any other business in our state. Nonetheless, a public campaign shaming them for damaging public safety might get them to service the flaky line. If the data gaps are due to power outages, non-interruptible power supplies are very inexpensive, and large external 12 volt car batteries could probably insure operation of all weather sensing electronics for many hours at a time.

    Of course, unmaintained weather equipment could just as easily be the culprit. I have had to phone my weather station (the Tumwater Airport) several times when their observations cease. Service usually resumes in a few hours if my call is during normal business hours.

  2. Good grief, that is old tech. If it were reliable, it wouldn't be a big deal since it provides enough bandwidth for the data... but that's obviously not the case.

    I wonder if they've looked at satellite phones? The latency shouldn't matter; and, while they're relatively expensive compared to cell phones, they're certainly cheaper than trying to maintain a physical phone line up to the site. They're well-adapted to use in remote locations... we used one, way back in the day, from the center of the Greenland ice sheet.

  3. The upper Skagit (at least in Rockport and Marblemount) had a fast and furious thunder/lightning, and hail storm in the wee hours last night - crazy for February! (esp. the T & L) Was that part I of Ridgezilla's arrival? Or what?

  4. There are plenty of solutions that use 900mhz to microwave links. Out here in Clallam County, a lot of PUD instrumentation works that way to avoid land lines. My internet comes to my house via microwave. The tech isn't very expensive.

    A little more expensive are the low-end satellite internet setups. Rural customers buy those to get internet. Can't be that expensive. I used to have one on my boat. Expensive for mobile installations, but cheap for fixed ground bases.

    Surprised NOAA is having trouble with such a basic problem.

  5. NOAA? Why isn't this office using GOES as the method of transmission?

  6. NOAA determines NWS budgets. When NOAA shut down USRCRN in the face of NWS objections, it was clear that funding NWS was low priority. Meanwhile, over $2B/year goes for climate change fear propaganda.

  7. I worked at Hayes from 1984 to 1993, and helped design that Optima 96 modem and co-wrote several of the standards it implemented. It really is a museum piece.

    Is there no cell coverage on Stampede Pass? Could they not use LTE?

  8. I get a chuckle out of how often Ft Lewis reports 'mixed precipitation' no matter how warm it is.

  9. Its a very important weather station for those who ski at the Mountaineers Meany Lodge. I wonder if the Mountaineers could pitch in - for example checking on the weather station. It is a nice X-country ski or snowshoe from the lodge.

  10. When the article stated 9600 baud was used -- I thought of the data logger used at the site. Something on the order of a Sutron 8210 or Campbell Scientific CR23X. Both had RS-232 ports topped off at 9600 baud. That would explain the 9600 Baud MODEM in play.

    @Bob was correct about the POTS line. However, in troubleshooting something like that for the support technician can be tricky and often done at the 'DEMARC Point'. Quite often the Phone company's end is good and the problems are in the local site wiring, I.E. punch down blocks, bad wiring practices, surge suppression, etc. Signs of which is intermittent operation or the MODEM retraining down to 2400 baud on connection.

    It was mentioned that the NOAA tried a cell solution. Another hit or miss proposition due to the Cell MODEM used and the carrier used. Some of the newer generation data loggers have a GSM or CDMA modules embedded into the unit making the process painless for the end user.

    @Toby Nixon -- interesting fact with these Cell MODEMS still support elements of the Hayes 'AT' Command set. I remember prior to that -- we had to use dip switches to configure the MODEMS. Some habits and methods die hard. I got rid of all my Dial up MODEMS in our system about 10 years ago. Too risky from a security stand point.

  11. How do weather/climate forecasts or historical averages handle the 29th day of February? For the year it is 1/366 (0.27%) significant, but for the month it is 1/29 (or 3.44%) significant?

  12. When ASOS stations are located at airports there is more incentive to keep them operational due to public safety. I think the obvious solution to keeping the Stampede Pass ASOS maintained is to build an airport next to it. But I am a pilot so I may be biased towards that particular solution.

  13. Actually, there was a state emergency airport near the ASOS at one time. The Green River gradually eroded it away and a few years ago it closed.



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