Social media bringing transparency to snow reports


And the industry itself has been quick to embrace social media to get the word out -- especially skier raves that attract more customers when fresh powder blankets a mountain.

One day in late February, Vail reported it had received a foot of snow on its renowned slopes. It didn't take long for early skiers to question it via Twitter and Facebook, and Vail retracted its report via Facebook -- a first for ski industry observers.

Vail explained that a ski patrol did find a foot of fresh snow against a measuring stake, but that winds had left anywhere from that foot to 2 inches elsewhere across the expansive resort. It also posted a YouTube video showing good powder runs that day on the mountain.

"We're not trying to inflate the figures. We want to be as transparent as we can be," said Vail Mountain spokeswoman Liz Biebl.

The real-time revision prompted Denver architect Scott Parker to cancel his Vail plans that day. "These reports are too close together to vary as much as two feet like they have this year," said Parker, who relies on social media reports rather than traditional reports from Colorado resorts themselves.

Still, with the season in North America now winding down, it highlighted the complexity of snow reporting under the best of circumstances.

Traditionally, ski resorts measure snowfall by using yardsticks or posting National Weather Service reports that sometimes are based miles away. Even local reports can vary widely, depending on where snow is measured. That poses a challenge for larger resorts like Vail, whose terrain covers more than 5,200 acres (8 square miles).

Resorts say most snow readings are taken at 5 a.m. to give skiers time to get up to the slopes, and a lot can change by the time they get there.

Many experts and skiers still rely on traditional early-morning reports. After all, a resort's credibility always is at stake, notes Adam Schmidt, editor of Snowboard Colorado Magazine.

"If they lie, when they do get a good snowstorm, no one will come and they will suffer," Schmidt said.

Independent scrutiny of the ski industry increased after two Dartmouth College professors studied snow reports from 2004 to 2008 across the United States and Canada. They discovered that resorts surveyed reported about 25 percent more snow on weekends than during the week, raising questions about their validity.

Resorts questioned the report, noting it did them no good for them to over-report snow.

But Jonathan Zinman, a co-author of the study, said the weekend discrepancies began to disappear in 2009 after new iPhone apps and websites began circulating.

"We found that before social media began holding them accountable in 2009, resorts on the average were exaggerating their snowfall," Zinman said this week.

Now there are dozens of apps and websites keeping track, including several that monitor the best conditions at nearly 2,000 resorts worldwide. was behind one popular app lauded for its user-generated reports. It was bought last year by publisher Mountain News Corp. -- a subsidiary of Vail Resorts Inc.

OnTheSnow content editor Patrick Crawford said that resorts in Europe and North America file reports daily to the site. Editors check reports from neighboring resorts for any discrepancies before posting them online. If they find a problem, they call the resorts to verify, Crawford said.

Jessica Kunzer, spokeswoman for Ski Utah, said the trade group has a full-time content manager focused on social media and a team of five bloggers who regularly update YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Kunzer said ski resorts like to brag about their snow totals, making the reports "self-policing."

The Mountain Pulse, a Jackson Hole, Wyo., independent website, sends people to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to do their own reporting. The site offers updates on Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, Flickr and YouTube and tweets the best slopes at Jackson Hole every day, including web and video links. The independent website, funded by advertisers, also offers web cams and weather reports.

Dave Byrd, spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association, said with so many people watching, it makes no sense for resorts to fabricate their snow totals.

"Maybe 10 years ago ski resorts might get away with embellishment, but it's not in their best interest to pad their numbers. It's really in the best interests of everyone to report accurate information," Byrd said.

Jim Pringle, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Junction, Colo., said resorts now have many tools for measuring snowfall, ranging from stakes in the snow to satellite recording stations operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that offer hourly reports.

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