The Northwest Avalanche Center exists to increase avalanche awareness, reduce avalanche impacts, and equip the community with mountain weather and avalanche forecasts, education, and data.
We envision a community of backcountry users in the Pacific Northwest aware of avalanche risk, making informed decisions, and returning safely.
The five goals laid out in our strategic plan focus our efforts for the next three years to meet the needs of the growing and evolving backcountry community in the Pacific Northwest. You can read the plan here.
Avalanche and Mountain Weather Forecasting
The Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) Forecasting Program is administered by the USFS – Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The program consists of two USFS avalanche meteorologists based in the NOAA-NWS office in Seattle, and seven USFS avalanche specialists (forecasters) based in satellite locations in Bellingham, Seattle, Leavenworth, Cle Elum, North Bend, WA and Parkdale, OR. Click here to learn more about the team.
The Northwest Avalanche Center begins daily weather and avalanche forecasts once enough snow accumulates in the mountains for consistent on-snow travel. Day 1 for the forecast season usually falls right around Thanksgiving, but may be as late as early/mid December depending on the snowpack. Prior to daily forecasts, we issue early-season avalanche snowpack and avalanche summaries and begin mountain weather forecaster in mid-November.
Once daily forecasts begin, we operate seven days a week until we wind down winter-time operations in mid to late April. Forecasts are constructed by forecast staff using a combination of weather models, remote weather stations, snowpack data, and field observations. We receive and incorporate field observations from our staff, the public and other avalanche professionals. NWAC usually has several forecasters in the field on any given day during the winter season. Every day, a subset of 4 or 5 forecasters will meet to review avalanche and snowpack observations and the weather forecast across the region as part of our process for creating the next day’s avalanche forecast.
In addition to our staff, we recognize the critical contributions of professional avalanche workers in Washington and Oregon. NWAC program Partners include the Washington State Department of Transportation avalanche program, professional ski patrols, the Olympic and Mt Rainier National Park Service rangers, professional guides and many others. For more on USFS funding, please see the Funding section below.
While most of the USFS forecast staff are offboarded in the Spring and return the following Fall, we have a small team that stays on during the “warm season” and prepares for the next season. Our off-season consists of new hiring, budgeting, programmatic changes, weather station maintenance, and procuring equipment.
Dec 6th, 1975: NWAC issues the first backcountry avalanche forecast in the PNW with Mark Moore, Rich Marriot and Bud Reanier (NWS) as the original NWAC forecasters. NWAC started as a joint project between the UW (Dr. Ed LaChapelle) and WSDOT to better understand and predict avalanches.
1978: NWAC joins the US Forest Service. NWAC is co-located with the NWS-NOAA first at the L. Union office in Seattle, then NOAA Campus in North Seattle (1984).
Late 1970s – 2012: For several decades, NWAC operated with a core of 3 forecasters, mainly mountain meteorologists to produce backcountry avalanche forecasts. During this time, our program had a leading role in developing avalanche forecasting in the PNW and built an extensive mountain weather station network in our area with the help of funding Partners like the DOT, Ski areas and NPS. From the early 1990s onward, Mark Moore, Kenny Kramer and Garth Ferber were our 3 core staff members. Sue Ferguson, Knox Williams and a few other forecasters/researchers also had stints with NWAC.
2012- Present: NWAC USFS and NonProfit arms became tightly intertwined during the 2010s. The Nonprofit funded a professional observer program to increase the quality and quanity of snowpack observations throughout our forecast region. These observations helped improve the avalanche forecast’s accuracy and increased community engagement. The Nonprofit also greatly expanded NWAC’s education footprint and funded rapid growth in the center’s technology.
The USFS began to add local field based forecasters during the winter of 2017-18, adding additional forecasters every season through 2022-23. We have more than tripled our FS winter-time staff (10) since 2017.
Data Collection and Visualization
NWAC’s program maintains one of the most comprehensive mountain weather data networks in the United States. The network consists of over 50 remote weather stations owned and maintained either by NWAC, the WSDOT avalanche Program, or ski area operations. We use the NWAC website and database to archive, network and visualize weather station data so that we can provide the public with real-time weather and snowpack information. NWAC shares the financial and on-site maintenance of a weather station with our Partners. The level of maintenance and funding varies depending on Partner and weather station.
The NWAC education program focuses on providing free, basic 1-2 hour avalanche awareness classes. The program offers around 300 classes every year at local outdoor, ski and snowmobile shops as well as by special arrangement with a variety of organizations. The education program is run by a program director and contracts roughly 50 instructors who have been trained by the American Association of Avalanche Research and Education to offer the premier avalanche education curriculum available.
In addition to our basic adult awareness classes, we also offer a growing youth specific program that we bring to schools and youth programs throughout the Northwest. This program focuses on young adults in the 12-18 age range.
Beyond basic awareness, we also offer a unique workshop series called “Laying Tracks” which focuses on multiple aspects of backcountry travel and avalanche terrain. This 4-week virtual program is taught by our avalanche forecaster and covers a specific topic for each session.
Lastly, NWAC serves as a clearing house for information related to avalanche safety. The education pages on our website are full of valuable resources, and we maintain an up-to-date calendar of all avalanche education opportunities offered by various companies and organizations in the region, including a list of all of the Level 1-3 avalanche classes offered by the private sector.
The NWAC non-profit staff are based in North Bend. They manage education, outreach and fundraising and fund the www.nwac.us website and various related tech projects. The Northwest Avalanche Center is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit and is overseen by a 19-member Board of Directors.
The USFS Northwest Avalanche Center is funded by seven primary Partners; the US Forest Service, the Non-Profit Northwest Avalanche Center, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (including Snowmobile and Snowpark Programs), Washington State Department of Transportation, National Park Service, Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, and the NW Winter Sports Foundation.
The non-profit Northwest Avalanche Center is funded entirely by private donations, a significant portion of which directly support the NWAC Forecasting Program.
Governing Documents, Audits, Tax Returns, and Indirect Costs
Governing documents, audits, and tax returns for the non-profit Northwest Avalanche Center are available upon request. Please send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Maximum Indirect Cost Rate for organizations contracting with the Northwest Avalanche Center is 0%. The intent is to sufficiently fund actual costs of services and not to generate financial surpluses for contractors.