ALBANY, N.Y.—The National Weather Service has a new forecasting tool to help skiers and hikers prepare for conditions on popular summits, where it may be snowing sideways with a wind chill near zero while it's sunny and pleasant in the valley below.
The Recreational Mountain Forecast features an online map where users can click on 19 summits in Vermont and northern New York and get a detailed hour-by-hour forecast. The experimental site becomes official on Nov. 5 after a year of testing and user feedback.
"We have a lot of recreational users that take advantage of the mountains in the area, both summer and winter," said Paul Sisson, science officer at the National Weather Service's office in Burlington, Vt., where the mountain forecast is produced. "Looking out for their safety, we thought a forecast that alerts them to conditions on the mountaintops, and how they differ from the valleys, was important."
One of the most useful aspects of the mountain forecast is a timeline of how the weather will change at three-hour intervals throughout the day and night.
"That allows you to plan your trip better," Sisson said Thursday. "If it looks like the conditions won't be good between 2 and 5 in the afternoon, you might go in the morning instead."
The weather service has received many positive comments through the website from hikers, rock and ice climbers, snowshoers, skiers, search-and-rescue groups and hang gliders, said Marcie Katcher, a spokeswoman for the weather agency.
"This adds a great deal beyond the regular forecast for the region," Katcher said. "Weather between two mountains 30 miles apart and only 1,500 feet difference in height can have very different weather conditions that the regular forecast does not address."
Tom Horrocks of the Killington ski center in Vermont, one of the mountains included in the site, said the mountaintop forecast will help skiers decide how to dress. He said the summit can be 30 degrees colder than the base.
At the Adirondack Mountain Club's hiking center at Heart Lake near Lake Placid, staffers post the forecasts daily for the base and summit of Mount Marcy, New York's highest and most popular peak.
"It helps get out the message that things change dramatically as you increase elevation," said Danielle Mangold, High Peaks information coordinator for the club.
Jim Giglinto, a forest ranger for the Adirondack High Peaks region, said he's been using the mountain forecast since it was made available a year ago.
"Prevention is a big part of the job here," Giglinto said. "People are often totally oblivious about what they're going to encounter at higher elevations. On a weekend when we had 1 to 2 feet of snow, people were showing up in street shoes, jeans and sweatshirts."
The High Peaks trailhead at Heart Lake is the most popular in the Adirondacks, with 60,000 to 70,000 hikers a year, Giglinto said.
"One of the problems is that most people don't do their homework before they come," Giglinto said. "They're not aware of these tools that might help them make better decisions. When people call me ahead of time, I give them that site so they can make better judgments."
A decision on whether to add more summits will be made later, based on feedback from users of the forecast tool, Katcher said.