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Snow Job

Shooting the breeze with ski meteorologist Jim Roemer


Published December 15, 2004 at 7:17 p.m.

I had intended to go skiing this past weekend with meteorologist Jim Roemer, but he nixed the plan. "Saturday looks pretty wet," he emailed. "Any other ideas?"

We agreed to have lunch in Stowe instead. On the drive there, I was glad not to be on the slopes: a cobwebby fog filled the valleys, and a mess of slush, snow and rain had turned Interstate 89 into a glowing brake-light-red snake. In town, two men in plaid coats and caps shoveled the slosh in a parking lot, shaking their heads. "Turning to rain," one of the men grumbled.

Over at a craft store, another man pushing a stroller stopped to turn to a friend. "Two to six inches," he predicted. And in the Whip Bar & Grill, the bartender asked a guy nursing a Budweiser about the snow and the roads further south. The barfly shook his head, took a sip of the beer and proclaimed, "Just wet."

It sounded like small talk, but weather is big business in Vermont, where dozens of alpine and cross-country ski areas depend on white stuff, or at least temperatures cold enough to blow it, to bring in the greenbacks. When December is dry, resort executives are right alongside skiers and riders praying for precipitation.

And when it comes to Mother Nature and mountains, few have a better vantage point than 45-year-old Roemer, who works out of his home in North Hyde Park. Call him a weather guru, weather psychic or just "Dr. Weather," the nickname that's stuck since a Stowe employee praised him in 2002. But call him -- or better yet, sign up for his e-mail service --before you head to the slopes, because Roemer almost always knows where, and when, it will dump.

"He forecast some huge storms for us last season," says Jay Peak's Kim Hewitt. "Out of nowhere, he said, 'Don't worry, you'll get 40 inches' when everyone else was predicting otherwise. And he was right."

The power to predict powder comes from a lifelong obsession with observing and participating in extreme weather. Roemer grew up in the concrete canyons of New York City, electrified by thunderstorms and blizzards and winter weekend trips to Bromley and Lake George. He remembers first seeing snow at age 5. "I used to call the weather phone like 10 times a day during a snowstorm," he says. "The Weather Channel wasn't around back then, so I'd call the phone and study maps and take pictures." When he was 10, Roemer begged his father, unsuccessfully, for a weather radar system that cost $250,000.

Lyndon State College was a natural fit for higher education. The renowned meteorology department has churned out some of the country's hottest weather celebs, including stormchaser and Weather Channel host Jim Cantore. Roemer skied whenever he could, though a temperamental diesel Rabbit often kept him indoors. "I spent half my vacations in the dorms, when it was three below zero, plugging my car in," says Roemer, who used the extra time constructively, to become an honor student and an all-American tennis player.

After a short post-graduation stint as a tennis pro, Roemer drove the Rabbit to Iowa, where he joined a commodity weather consultancy. He spent 15 years telling Midwestern farmers and brokers when a frost, rain or drought might hit, while forecasting for local radio and TV stations. Eventually he burned out on the work and moved to North Carolina, where he started advising on his own. In 1996, Hurricane Fran wiped out his house while he was at a Neil Young concert in Chicago. "During the song 'Like a Hurricane' -- I swear to God -- my cell phone rang," he says. "My friend said, 'It's a $4 billion disaster back here, why didn't you forecast this?' I did -- but I thought it was going to hit Florida."

By 2000, when recovering from another hurricane that hit his rebuilt home, Roemer had decided to move back to Vermont, where he's had a second house since 1991. Plus, he explains, his sister had just moved from Colorado to the Green Mountains; Roemer wanted to be closer to her and to the ski slopes. "I think the most relaxing thing, and when I feel who I really am, is when I am in the weather," he says. "And the ultimate is being able to ski in it."

Eventually, he founded WeatherRisk Institute, through which he provides long-range forecasts for weather-sensitive industries. What really fires him up, though, is watching the mountains get walloped by snowstorms, and mapping the destruction in real time, with rainbow-colored graphics. Two years ago, he decided to turn this hobby into a business, and created as a way for folks to get the low-down on the higher altitude conditions. Web surfers can check out regional maps -- labeled with major ski resorts -- for New England, the Rockies and Sierras, Canada and Europe. Seeing the Rorschach splotches of blue, which indicate snow, is cool, but not exactly a big deal, especially if you live hours from the nearest ski area.

Buy a $30 to $170 subscription, however, and Roemer will email you every few days, telling you where to head well in advance of your trip. "Best powder prediction -- go to Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Stowe, Jay Peak or Sugarbush," a sample December alert reads. He adds a personal touch. "There have probably only been a couple of instances in the last 35-40 years of my life that I have been excited as today about the weather."

Ski resorts get pretty excited, too. They pay a corporate subscription fee for his forecasts, which they post on their websites, and often sweeten the deal with free ski passes. Why? "He's got a much more in-depth analysis of the weather," said Mad River Glen's Eric Friedman. "It's from the perspective of a real skier."

While Roemer, like most meteorologists, relies on the latest technology to track the weather -- he has four computers in his office --his powder predictions are also based on a few other factors. He studies historical records, pays attention to frozen lakes and looks at planetary waves and soundings, which are three-dimensional descriptions of the atmosphere that help explain how air acts differently at higher elevations.

"Most computers are calibrated at lower elevations, not for the mountains," says Roemer. "Depending upon the wind direction and depending upon bodies of water, I can look at these soundings to determine where more lifting's going to be and how the atmosphere is going to change above 2000 or 3000 or 4000 feet."

Roemer also adds folklore into the mix. "Somebody from Stowe told me that during the full moon in December and January the weather pattern always changes," he says. "Sure enough, we'll get one to two feet over the next few days, and a cold front right up to Christmas."

It's this kind of approach that helped Roemer nail two mammoth snowstorms that buried Jay Peak in knee-deep powder last December, when other meteorologists thought Vermont would only get a light dusting. The slam-dunk stands out among his favorite forecasting moments. "I don't want to come across as being cocky -- I'm not always right," says Roemer, who guesses he's 67 percent accurate a month or two in advance, and 75 percent accurate one or two weeks in advance. "But big powder, I'm rarely wrong."

It's this kind of confidence that has helped Roemer land national and international ski-resort clients, from Snowbird and Telluride to Whistler and Lake Louise. With studies showing that global warming may one day wipe ski areas out, Roemer's enthusiastic reports are reassuring.

Roemer prefers to look at the long-term, rather than short-term, effects of global warming. "Even the smartest Nobel Prize winner can't say for sure what's going to happen to the Earth," he says. "But my gut feeling is: This is serious. And yes, over 50 or 100 years, it will affect the ski industry." Among Roemer's myriad business ideas is to create a consortium of ski-area managers who will offset the cost of operations by turning to renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and bio-diesel, and trade on the futures market.

But first, there is the powder to predict --and ski. Somewhere in his 70-hour work weeks, Roemer will shoehorn in a foray to the backcountry of Stowe or Sugarbush, whose secrets he has learned from grateful locals. "I've gotten crazier and crazier," he says. "I love steeps, I love deep powder and I'm challenging myself more and more. It's like being in heaven, skiing. Weather is really God speaking to me."

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