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Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Updated: September 29, 2:42 PM ET
Thinkers, Part 5: Snow forecaster

Is it going to puke snow like this? Just ask Chris Manly.

[Editor's note: This story is the fifth part of a seven-part series on the ski industry's most innovative thinkers and the original ideas that drive the sport forward. Check back next Wednesday for the sixth installment, an interview with the mastermind behind Armada Skis, Hans Smith.]

Part 1: Tom Wallisch Part 2: Snow ScientistPart 3: Katal Innovations

Part 4: Eric PollardPart 5: Snow forecasterPart 6: Hans SmithPart 7: Rick Greenwald

Chris Manly's addiction to weather began at an early age. When he was 10, Manly built a weather data station in his backyard and began poring over daily satellite photos. His curiosity eventually became his career, and in 1998, Manly launched, arguably the most comprehensive site of its kind in the ski industry. What began as a service for California's Mountain High Resort has grown to predict snow totals and weather conditions at more than 580 resorts across North America -- up from 30 two years ago. Manly, a 41-year-old ex-Navy forecaster, spoke to us from his home in northern Idaho about why government forecasts fall short, the role of his gut instinct and the future of snow predictions.

There's really no secret to snow forecasting. I think the people who've been in it for a while and really love it will admit that it's definitely not cut and dry. It's a mix of art and science. You could know everything there is to know in the field of weather, be the best Ph.D in the country, and you're still going to get humbled at one point or another.

Having a gut instinct could be the difference between you being right 50 percent of the time, and you being right 70 percent or more.

I think this will become a 30-million-hits-a-year site. If you're talking page views, we're halfway there -- we get about 15 million a year. And anywhere from 1.6 million to just over 2 million unique visitors, depending on which tracking service you believe.

It takes high-tech equipment and gut instinct to forecast weather. Manly on the job.

We have about 10 resorts that sponsor us, but I'm an ethical person and an ideologist. I'm not going to get paid off by anybody. And people are smart enough to figure out if that's what you're doing. I want to be doing this for a long time. I believe I would lose visitors and credibility, and that means more to me than however much money anyone would be willing to pay. And nobody's ever tried that.

I know weather's not a perfect science, but I'm a perfectionist. So if the temperature that I forecast is off by three degrees, then to me it's inaccurate. Or if I'm saying we're going to get one to two inches of snow and we end up getting five inches, that's not accurate.

I started skiing in 1985 and snowboarding in 1993. In a year where everyone gets hit with a lot of snow, I might be able to get out once or twice. But last year, there wasn't as much going on, so we picked up about 25 days. That's all my free time; skiing is pretty much what I do.

I think you're going to see more online tools and maps in the future. One thing I'm trying to come up with is a snow-depth map. It would be based on just raw data and not ski resort snow reports. And that's not a knock on the ski resorts, I just like raw, unedited information. There are backcountry weather stations that are set up to do that. I'd just compile them.

I know people are watching [my] forecast, and I know people are spending money and sometimes planning days off, and I'm flattered by that. But it also makes me very serious, meticulous.

I don't think government forecasts are that accurate, especially more than a day or two out, which is why I started this website. They're responsible more for life and limb. When big storms come in, they might not tell you well in advance, but when the storm's close and you're within a critical planning stage, I think they're pretty good at calling how much snow's going to fall. I don't have quite the responsibility they do. I'm more of a recreation forecast; I tell you how much snow's going to fall in the next three to six days, and not limit it to one or two.

Computer models are always going to be limited by us. There's just too much going on in the atmosphere to nail it down with a computer model. It takes the human mind to sort through it all and come out with a seasoned forecast, and I think that's always going to be the case.

I've had some shining moments. But that would be bragging, and if I do that, I'll end up getting humbled. So I'll leave that one alone.