Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cascade Concrete

Thursday, January 9, 2014
2:35 a.m. (yup, one of those nights)

They say the Eskimos have 100 different words for snow. I doubt "Cascade Concrete" is one of them, because I don't know of any Inuit peoples in the Cascade mountain range. However, it is definitely one that many people, and certainly every skier and snowboarder around here, is familiar with. It might be worthwhile to let the Inuit know about this type of snow so that they can add yet another one to their ever-increasing list.

What is Cascade Concrete?

Well, I Bing'ed it up, and the first result that I got was that Cascade Concrete is an industrial plant that utilizes state-of-the-art manufacturing and specializes in "producing CriblockTM  system components for many large scale projects simultaneously while maintaining an on hand inventory." Below is the logo at the top of their website.

You can't go wrong with that domain name.

Now, I'm frankly not interested in any CriblockTM  system components, but I do want to point something out to ya'll. See how logo consists of snow covered mountains? That's right... Cascade Concrete actually started out as a term for snow... it was not simply stolen from from our CriblockTM -producing comrades.

Cascade Concrete refers to snow that falls in the Cascades and has a texture and mass akin to concrete. In other words, Cascade Concrete is really heavy, wet snow that falls in the Cascades. A normal water-to-snow ratio is that one inch of water = 10 inches of snow, but than ratio can be 1:5 with Cascade Concrete. There are more than a couple times (mainly when I was a kid) when I'd be super excited to go to the pass and would be begging my mom to take me skiing because I simply expected that a large snow dump automatically meant a "powder day." Of course, as soon as I took my first turns, I knew that the snow wasn't the "powder" I had expected. As it turns out, some of my worst skiing performances were during these "powder days gone wrong."

So a lot of skiers hate Cascade Concrete. I don't really care for it... honestly, I'll take what I can get at this point. They all want powder. The kind of stuff you can't make snowballs with. Some places in Colorado and Utah can have ratios of 1:30, even as high as 1:40 rain:snow ratios. I've never skied on stuff like that before.


But... OK... tangent time, sorry. When I was in my freshman year of high school, my friend Jeff brought me along to Whistler for a nearly-all-expenses-paid ski trip over some three-day weekend (I think it was MLK). We stayed at the Westin. Anyway, when we were driving up to Whistler, we were driving through some snow showers at sea-level on the Sea to Sky Highway along Howe Sound. We got into Whistler around 1, and skied until they closed at 4 or so. The conditions were brutal... we were at around 5-6,000 feet on Blackcomb, and the winds were howling over 40 km/hr and the temperature was right at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a wind chill of -25 degrees. It was snowing, the visibility was near 0... it sucked. After that, we stayed below the tree line for the rest of the day.

But the next day... oh. my. goodness. Jeff and I had purchased this special package called "early tracks," which entails getting up early, catching the Whistler Village Gondola from 2,214 feet all the way up to Roundhouse Lodge at 6,069 feet, having a delicious all-you-can-eat breakfast there, and then skiing on the mountain before anybody else. It was still absolutely frigid, but the skies were completely blue, and the powder...

There wasn't that much of it, but since it had been snowing at sea level the day before and we were up at 6,000 feet where it was 0 degrees the day before as well, the snow was as dry as could be. It was truly an amazing day of skiing... probably the best I've ever had in my life, and an experience I'll never forget. 


So, we've established that skiers love dry snow. Snow-fort builders and snow-based weaponry personnel hate it, but skiers and snowboards love it. For these upcoming systems, snow levels will remain right around 3,000 feet with the exception of a strong rise to 6-7,000 feet Friday afternoon to night as a strong warm front associated with a strong low pressure center (more about that later) rolls into the area. Because snow levels will be right around pass level, the temperatures will be right around freezing, and the snow will be nice and heavy. That's right... Cascade Concrete. Moisture is also an influencing factor; places with lots of moisture tend to have low liquid water to snow ratios, while places that are drier (like those guys in Utah) have higher ratios.

But what if I told you that wet snow was actually good in this instance? The thing about dry snow is that just like it doesn't stick to other snow to make a snowball, it doesn't stick to rocks to cover them up. The good thing about wet snow is it does stick to all these obstacles and is a much more solid base. If there is a blizzard after this snow has fallen, it won't get pushed around. It is too dense. Really dry "champagne" snow, on the other hand, could fly right away. So we won't only get four feet of snow at the pass, we will get four feet of solid, heavy, Cascade Concrete, and this should be more than enough for the Summit at Snoqualmie to open. As I've said before, Alpental's terrain has a bit more gnarl, and a larger base is needed to cover the obstacles, so I don't know if Alpental will open. They usually need around a 50 inch base to consider opening, so amounts will be marginal for them to begin operations. Fingers crossed.


Why exactly do warm temperatures and moist conditions lead to heavy, dense snow, while cold temperatures and dry conditions lead to light and fluffy snow? 

Well, different atmospheric conditions lead to different types of snowflakes. Take a look at the picture below, and take a guess at which one is associated with the driest snow.

Think about it. Dry, fluffy snow is un-dense. Which of these flakes looks the most lightest? The dendrites definitely look like the lightest to me. They also look like they are the prettiest, and they look like the snowflakes we usually see in our culture.

It turns out they are! Interestingly enough, once you get below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, you start seeing those other types of plates again, and the snow becomes denser. I hesitate to use the term "wetter" because there ain't nothing wet when it's -40 degrees outside. Fun fact: -40 degrees Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same temperature.

It's time for me to work on some weather and math homework now. The weather homework I have to do is identifying the observations that are decoded in annoying airport code shorthand, and the math homework I have to do is associated with my "dynamical systems and chaos" class, which is my first 400-level class and may end up being the hardest class I'll ever take. It's bound to be interesting though, and the "chaos" part of the class is highly relevant to weather modeling. I'll let you guys know what I learn from my studies of chaotic systems, and I'll be sure to put in some nice, easy-to-understand* proofs for ya.

Charlie :)

*for engineers, physicists, and mathematicians only

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