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January 23, 2013
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Snow back in the forecast

EAGLE COUNTY - There aren't any powder-making machines in the near-term weather forecast, but snow is on the way. And more good news, at least for downvalley residents, is that those storms may break the recent cycle of below-zero mornings.

Joel Gratz, who runs the powder forecasting site www.opensnow.com, is calling for a series of storms to move through the Vail Valley in the next five to seven days. The first is expected to hit the valley tonight.

That storm, and another following Friday night, might bring a few inches each, Gratz said. It isn't the powder dump we've been waiting for, but as dry as most of January has been, any snow is welcomed.

The third storm, expected to arrive around Sunday, is harder to predict, Gratz said. That storm is tracking into Colorado from the south, and is packing plenty of moisture - how much of that moisture turns into snow and how much will come to the Vail Valley, however, are still too hard to predict, he said.

A fourth storm in the series "isn't taking the best path toward Vail," Gratz said. "This should be another one under six inches."

While a few inches over a several days will add up, the valley will need some big, powerful systems to break a drought now stretching into its second year. According to Gratz, the mountains in Vail's watershed are several inches short of average in water content. Those inches will require feet of snow to build up.

While powder's always welcome, it may be a mixed blessing for those who play in the backcountry.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center's online map of the mountains currently has the avalanche danger listed as "moderate" around most of the state. The reason is there hasn't been any significant new snow, so the existing snowpack has been able to stabilize somewhat.

But Scott Toepfer of the information center said the underlying snowpack remains unstable.

"When a storm comes in, it adds weight and stresses the snow," Toepfer said.

Toepfer said the first rule of avalanche observation and forecasting is that there really aren't any rules. That said, Toepfer said avalanches tend to run in the first 24 to 48 hours after a storm.

"It may not take much snow to re-stress the snowpack," Toepfer said.

If wind accompanies that snow, as it often does, two inches of snow in one place can be eight inches or more in others. The problem comes when people who have been itching to get back into the backcountry decide that a few inches of snow is enough to plan a trip.

"People get a little excited, and might go farther left than they usually would (on a slope)," Toepfer said. "Next thing you know, you're fighting for your life."

While this series of storms will be helpful, Gratz said it's too soon to tell if February will bring more consistent snow. But, he added, if we're going to end up with a decent snow year, now's the time the storms need to start building, then dumping.

But a series of storms is just what people in the lower valleys will need to break the cycle of frigid mornings. Some of the cold air now lingering in the lower elevations may be "mixed" with the generally warmer air in higher elevations, bringing the area back to normal, where the higher elevations are cooler than lower areas.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 23, 2013 08:16PM Published Jan 23, 2013 08:14PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.