This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
It all started with a conversation back in 2004. Michael Ruzek, a skier and financial planner living in Park City, was chatting with one of his clients. Said client was Hank Manninen, a retired engineer enjoying the best of his twilight years by splitting time between Hawaii and Utah. In the Aloha State, surfers were relying on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather buoy to estimate the arrival of swells on Hawaii's coast. But that wasn't all--Manninen believed that the buoy's movements were linked to storm cycles in Utah's Wasatch range, as well.
At first, Ruzek was skeptical. Could a buoy thousands of miles off the coast really predict the next pow day at Alta or Snowbird two weeks in advance?
Like any good skier, Ruzek dove in to see if there was any truth to his client's claim. The buoy in question was a scientific instrument designed to track various meteorological factors, one of which was wave height. When the buoy reached a specific height, or "popped," Ruzek noticed that a storm would often hit the Wasatch about two weeks later. "There’s something to this," he recalls thinking. "It’s not 100 percent, but there’s definitely a correlation."
Ruzek grew up in northern New Jersey and dabbled in ski racing before moving west in 1993 to attend the University of Utah. In 1995, he met his wife and eventually settled in Park City to start a family. Today, Ruzek helps families and institutions manage their finances as a planner for Morgan Stanley. When we spoke, he told me he was busy with "10-hour work days."
None of this growing-up business has dampened Ruzek's love for skiing, though. College was part of the program when he initially headed west, but getting in more pow days played a role, too. "I've always had a passion for skiing," he says. "It’s been something that’s driven me my whole life and kind of been my North Star."
For Ruzek, the buoy presented an opportunity to schedule pow day openings between work and family in advance. First, he tracks the buoy's wave height which indicates that a storm could be coming to the Wasatch sometime in the next two weeks. Then, he augments this prediction with meteorological estimates from the University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
Ruzek is not alone in relying on the buoy. In 2013, spurred by the encouragement of his friends, he set up a Facebook page, coining the name Powder Buoy. As word of the mystical buoy spread throughout the Wasatch, Jodi Saeland, a local meteorologist, contacted Ruzek. According to Saeland, a troupe of Brighton Ski Team parents had foregone scientific weather predictions, opting to rely on the Powder Buoy instead. "Everyone only listens to the buoy; what the hell is up with this thing?" Ruzek recalls Saeland asking him. Saeland's investigation spawned a 2016 blog post for Ski Utah, cementing the Powder Buoy's position in local ski lore.
The exact meteorological machinations of the Powder Buoy aren't clear. Ruzek, who isn't shy about admitting that he's received no formal meteorological education, posits that it has to do with low-pressure systems. For those unfamiliar, low-pressure systems are meteorological patterns that typically produce the most snow during the winter. Ruzek guesses that when a low-pressure system passes over the buoy, it forces water upwards, causing the eponymous "buoy pop," signaling that a storm is headed towards the west coast of the U.S. And, if this low-pressure system continues to track eastward from Hawaii, it'll hit the Wasatch about two weeks later. While Ruzek notes that the Powder Buoy's predictions primarily apply to Utah, he's also received reports that skiers in Colorado and Wyoming have tuned in.
Hello 22/23, nice to see you. I am grateful for the fall, one of the best in years, and last year wasn't too shabby. Now it's time to bring it on! Stoke! #yeahbuoy
The Powder Buoy's most significant selling point is that it could outpace traditional forecasting tools, which aren't particularly accurate beyond the 10-day mark. According to Jim Steenburgh, author of Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth and atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah, once you pass that 10-day threshold, you can't rely on specific forecasting. Instead, you'll need to turn to the study of long-term weather patterns and temperature shifts, known as climatology. Steenburgh says that with climatology, he could predict storms two weeks from now with about only 20 percent accuracy.
This, of course, casts doubt on the Powder Buoy's claim to fame. If Steenburgh, who employs trillions of data points to produce forecasts, can't reliably estimate the weather two weeks from now, should we trust one buoy bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean?
Here's what the numbers say. Ruzek, on the Powder Buoy website, tracks the relationship between Wasatch storms and "buoy pops." Eight of the 12 "buoy pops" Ruzek followed in 2021 ended in Utah snowfall, making the buoy roughly 66 percent accurate in storm prediction between October and January that year. Similarly, in a five-year review, Ruzek estimated that the Powder Buoy's overall accuracy rate was "in the high 70s." Despite these numbers, Steenburgh remains skeptical, believing it's impossible to forecast storms two weeks in advance with "any reliability."
Numbers aside, Ruzek doesn't take the Powder Buoy project too seriously, saying "for the most part, the true scientists think I'm an idiot." After all, professors like Steenburgh are professionals, meaning they must meet professional standards. Ruzek, on the other hand, estimates Wasatch storms for "stoke and fun." And an incorrect Powder Buoy forecast doesn't have negative consequences or put lives at risk. Instead, it means Ruzek made time in his busy schedule to get out and ski with his friends and family, regardless of how the forecast actually pans out. "If I go out on a Tuesday and it's like, oh, the storm went to Jackson and didn’t come here; I’m still skiing, I’m still with friends, I’m still having a good time," Ruzek says.
There's the community aspect, too. Since Ruzek started the Powder Buoy Facebook page, it's amassed 9,300 followers. On Instagram, the Powder Buoy has even stronger numbers, totaling out at 27,000. While this is no Kim Kardashian following, it indicates a considerable presence in our niche sport. Ruzek's happy that the Powder Buoy spreads stoke to its fans, regardless of the varied opinions on its meteorological legitimacy, "I've been all over the country, from Alaska to Canada, and see people wearing Powder Buoy hats or have stickers or buffs... it's fun to be associated with stoke and skiing."
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