Weathering the Games

Think the athletes are under pressure? Try predicting Salt Lake City’s weather in February.

Clear skies. Cold temperatures. Artificial snow. These are optimal weather conditions for the fast slopes desired by Olympic skiers.

Nonetheless, these conditions may not be in the forecast for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. What is in the forecast, however, are some of the most up-to-date weather prediction teams and equipment ever assembled for the Olympic Games.

The University of Utah’s meteorology department has teamed up with the National Weather Service (NWS), the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), and KSL-TV, led by Mark Eubank BS’71, to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts during the Games. The team will be responsible for monitoring weather conditions not only at the five outdoor venues, but also along the transportation routes leading to and from those venues. This collaboration among public, private, and academic institutions is a first for the Olympics.

Since the announcement in 1995 that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, faculty and students in the U’s meteorology department have been focusing on weather support. With the assistance of federal funding, professors John Horel and Jim Steenburgh, and Larry Dunn BS’79 PhD’93 from the NWS arranged for the installation of 27 weather stations at the Olympic outdoor venues and significantly increased the data available in the U’s MesoWest, an online database that displays weather observations. Research Associate Mike Splitt, who obtains and processes data from 70 cooperating organizations in the western states, manages MesoWest.

With the aid of graduate students, the group has conducted research to improve knowledge of winter weather inmountainous areas and produce high-resolution computer analysis and forecast models, which will provide hour-by-hour forecasts at the venues throughout the Games. They’ve also provided training for the forecasters who will be at the Olympic Weather Operations Center and the outdoor venues.

“The development of improved weather monitoring and computer forecasting capabilities has applications that extend beyond the Olympics,” says Steenburgh. “For example, the dense array of wind observations we collect can be used to identify opportunities for wind power development. Road surface conditions can be better predicted, resulting in more efficient removal of snow and ice during winter storms. Improved prediction of mountain snowstorms and high-wind events provides valuable information for avalanche prediction and control.”

More than 20 University meteorology students will get hands-on experience with the high-tech monitoring as volunteer weather aides at the Games venues. They will be responsible for measuring snow-surface temperatures and sky conditions, which will then be combined with automated observations from the weather sensors installed by Horel and his team to produce the official weather observation for all outdoor Olympic events. This once-in-a-lifetime experience will be invaluable to the students in their development as meteorologists.

Most important, the development of the weather equipment and the knowledge gained over the past few years and during the Games will improve forecasting in Utah. According to U meteorologist and SLOC’s weather coordinator Tom Potter, “The Olympic weather support project will leave a lasting legacy of more weather instruments at key mountain locations, improved databases for future researchers, better forecasting tools, and improved understanding of complex weather processes in complex terrains—all leading to much better forecasts in the Intermountain region for years to come.”

—Coralie Alder is director of public relations at the University.

For more information about the meteorology project and weather forecasting, visit