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SALT LAKE CITY — Forecasting Utah weather can be challenging, since much of the state’s population lives in the valley of northern Utah, with mountains on either side. During the winter, the Utah Department of Transportation has a unique challenge — forecasting and reacting to the dreaded “lake-effect” snow coming directly from the Great Salt Lake to the west of the capital city.
Many people may not realize that UDOT actually employs a team of meteorologists to deliver specific forecasts to maintenance crews, snow plow operators and Utah drivers alike. Many times these forecasts are route specific, and delivered in real time.
Forecasters can accurately pinpoint the track of a storm, and deliver personalized weather updates to the snow-plow operators before the white stuff falls from the sky.
Lake-effect snow is nothing to mess around with in Utah. Before UDOT employed the weather team, contracted through Seattle-based Northwest Weathernet, Inc., maintenance crews would operate on a preemptive basis, salting and sanding the roads in anticipation of the storm to come, or else wake up with everyone else to a couple inches of snow on the roads.
Now, forecasters can accurately pinpoint the track of a storm, and deliver personalized weather updates to the snow-plow operators before the white stuff falls from the sky.
With thousands of sensors and electronic equipment creating a communication network along Utah freeways, UDOT is able to collect information in real-time, including average pavement temperatures and the average speed of traffic on the freeways.
Also, free-standing weather sensors called RWIS, or Roadway Weather Information Systems, collect wind data, dew point, visibility, temperature, relative humidity, roadway conditions and precipitation data.
All this information is then delivered to the Traffic Operations Center instantly.
Not only do maintenance crews with the Transportation Department use this data, but law-enforcement personnel across the state do as well.
When a storm hits the Wasatch Front, the Utah Highway Patrol, whose dispatchers also work out of the Traffic Operations Center, will immediately take to the freeways ensuring motorists’ safety. Construction crews in charge of paving, pothole repair, lane-striping and other maintenance jobs also rely on these forecasts.
Pavement repairs require a specific surface and ambient temperature for the repairs to hold, so accurate forecasts can end up saving taxpayers money, as crews won’t have to make the repairs multiple times.
Pavement repairs require a specific surface and ambient temperature for the repairs to hold, so accurate forecasts can end up saving taxpayers money.
According to a report, use of these weather services for anti-icing strategies has resulted in significant cost savings, which are estimated between $5.9 and $13.3 million per year.
Another $1.4 to $3.1 million has been saved on material and labor costs per year. Officials say Utah’s unique topography makes road maintenance a challenge, but Utah road conditions forecasters plan to continue to play a vital role with the department for years to come.
Andrew Johnson is a writer and journalist, and regularly writes for major Utah publications. Read more at www.andrewjohnson1.com