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Friday, March 13, 2015

GPS and Snow Depth: When Mother Nature Got Stingy, this Ski Area Got Creative

Groomer and snow maker JP Silva utilizes GPS technology to measure snow depth while working through the night at Diamond Peak Ski Resort near Incline Village on March 6, 2015.  (Photo: Jason Bean/RGJ)
As reported by RGJ:After more than five years grooming runs and making snow at Diamond Peak Ski Resort it's obvious JP Silva has an innate feel for the terrain.

He can navigate the snowcat with ease even during a casual conversation with a rider, operating stick controls and monitoring screens and gauges to keep the diesel powered, roughly eight-ton vehicle level and grooming a smooth, corduroy pattern into the snow.

To hear Silva describe it he's got a near-spiritual connection to the mountain when he's operating the snowcat during one of his overnight shifts.

"It's like my Zen place," Silva, 32, said during a recent shift. "I'm out here practicing in my garden."

But even Silva's close relationship with the terrain isn't enough to effectively manage the snow at Diamond Peak which, like much of the Sierra Nevada, has been ravaged by a four-year drought that's shown no sign of abating. In fact, scientific evidence suggests climate change will contribute to even sparser snow conditions in the future.

That's why Diamond Peak is turning to satellite technology to help Silva and the other groomers and snowmakers at the ski area maximize the snow they get from Mother Nature and the stuff they make themselves.

It's the first ski area in North America to install SNOWsat technology on the terrain, in snowcats and in resort headquarters to actively manage snow depth as the groomers are running.

"It is like a video game," Silva said. "If I need a four-degree pitch I can instantly level and move the snow just right to get a four-degree pitch."

The system integrates satellites, software, wireless communication and mapping technology to give grooomers like Silva and others at Diamond Peak a live look at snow depth anywhere on the mountain. It also includes software for managing the fleet of snowcats by tracking location, idle time and other statistics.

But when it comes to managing ski conditions during an era of low snow it's the snow depth data that's critical to operators.
Grooming Supervisor Russ Mitchell, in cab, talks with fellow groomer JP Silva while working through the night at Diamond
Peak Ski Resort near Incline Village on March 6, 2015. (Photo: Jason Bean/RGJ)

"There are always pockets that accumulate snow," said John Glockhamer, marketing director for PistenBully, the company that makes the snowcats used at Diamond Peak and the SNOWsat technology. It's North American headquarters are in Reno.

"You may have a puddle of eight-feet of snow and 30 yards up on the ridge you have three inches," Glockhamer said.

The SNOWsat helps by measuring snow depth and displaying it on monitors where snowcat operators and resort managers can see it. It's a high tech version of the previous measuring system, which involved ski patrollers working throughout the day to use sticks to measure and record snow data.

It works by using a computerized, three dimensional map of the mountain without snow as a baseline. Then sensors mounted on snowcats allow satellites and a base on the ground to pinpoint the location of each vehicle that's outfitted with the technology.

Grooming Supervisor Russ Mitchell shows off the tiller on his snowcat while working at
Diamond Peak Ski Resort near Incline Village on March 6, 2015. 
(Photo: Jason Bean/RGJ)
By measuring how far the snowcat is above bare ground the system can tell operators the snow depth with an accuracy of less than two inches.

Glockhamer said previous attempts to use technology to measure snow depth were often sonar-based. But the inconsistency of snow within the snowpack undermined the usefulness of that technology, which sends out pulses of sound and reads the echo to determine distance. Layers of ice and other inconsistencies in the snow could lead to inaccurate readings, Glockhamer said.

Satellite technology also had problems, he said. The big one is that most satellite location systems only track objects with an accuracy of a couple feet or meters.

When it comes to maintain snow conditions for resort skiing, "if you are accurate within two feet that doesn't mean anything," he said. "Especially this year when there is no snow, you need to know right down to inches."

By combining the ground-based unit and computer model of the mountain with the satellites SNOWsat improves three-dimensional location accuracy enough to be useful to groomers, Glockhamer said.

It's already in use in more than 100 locations in Europe, he said. And there's an expectation more North American ski areas will try SNOWsat or something like it, especially given how susceptible the winter resort industry is to disruption from climate change.

A spokeswoman for Diamond Peak, which is operated by the Incline Village General Improvement District, said the system cost about $100,000. The snow depth technology is on two of Diamond Peak's five snowcats. The fleet management system is on all five.


A groomer stands in front of his snowcat at
Diamond Peak Ski Resort near Incline
Village on March 6, 2015. 
(Photo: Jason Bean/RGJ)
Brad Wilson, general manager of Diamond Peak, said the technology allows workers to better anticipate thin spots in order to prevent them before they turn to bare spots and ruin a run. That's especially critical in the Sierra Nevada where springtime sunshine can make a bare spot grow exponentially in a matter of hours.

"You don't want to wait until you see a thin spot," Wilson said. "The last thing you want to do is have a thin spot open up, it just absorbs heat."


That's not much of a problem when the Sierra Nevada is having a traditional, at least for the 20th century, winter with a massive snowpack. But when conditions are thin, as they have been in recent years, better snow management is needed to extend the number of weeks and days skiers can play on the slopes.

"If you have a 12-foot base you could make a lot of mistakes and not have to worry about it," Wilson said. "When you are dealing with one, two, three, four-foot bases it makes a huge difference."