Originally created 12/19/97

Fifty days to Nagano: Where's the snow?



HAKUBA, Japan -- The skier looked at the slope as it glistened under a bright sun, and he shook his head.

"I haven't seen conditions here this bad in years," said Hideki Inone, a firefighter and Nagano native. "It's just unbelievable."

Just a few yards from a set of huge Olympic rings marking the start of the women's downhill course, jagged rocks and patches of semi-frozen mud shown through snow that was but a thin, lumpy blanket.

After fighting their way out from an avalanche of disputes over everything from the length of the men's downhill to the quality of official hotel accommodations, Nagano's organizers are again preparing for battle.

This time, the enemy is Mother Nature.

With 50 days until the Feb. 7-22 games, concerns over Nagano's notoriously unpredictable weather are rapidly approaching storm status.

Earlier this month, sports officials in the Nagano area had to cancel an outdoor speedskating competition because warm weather left the rink surface unusable.

When the year's first significant snows finally fell on Dec. 3, it was deemed an important enough event to be shown live on nationwide television. But the next day, the IOC voiced concerns over a possible lack of snow when the games begin.

Such concerns aren't just hot air. Nagano is the southernmost site ever to serve as a Winter Olympic host. It is at roughly the same latitude as San Francisco or Seville, Spain.

Summer temperatures can reach 95 degrees, and forecasters say the El Nino weather pattern probably will mean a warmer winter than usual this year. But El Nino may be the least of Nagano's worries.

Even more than most alpine environments, Nagano and its surrounding areas are prone to sudden weather changes.

Anything from strong winds to fog to blizzards could play havoc with Olympic schedules, according to Hiromichi Itoh, manager of the Japan Weather Association's Nagano regional office.

Itoh, who will be the chief weather forecaster for the games, said a monitoring system is already being put in place for the Olympics. Fifty meteorologists will be assigned to the games. Unmanned observation cameras have been installed at several venues, allowing Itoh to watch weather changes from various angles without looking away from the computer on his desk in Nagano city.

The Nagano Games will also feature three mobile radar units -- a first for the Winter Olympics. The radar, similar to the equipment used by tornado hunters in the movie "Twister," can be used to determine the speed and direction of wind and the quantity of snowfall within 35 miles of the unit.

"We call it now-casting, instead of forecasting, because it allows us to tell what is going on right now and judge from that what to expect," Itoh said. "It will be a big help to people who need to know if an event should be canceled or postponed or run on schedule."

The average temperature in Nagano in February is 33 degrees, and the average snowfall is about 2 inches.

It is much colder and snowier higher up in the mountains, where the skiing events will be held, and Itoh does not expect the increase in temperature caused by El Nino to be significant in terms of snowfall at the higher locations.

He added, however, that it could mean less or wetter snow at the bottom of the runs and said wind could be a serious problem at the start of the men's downhill race.

Nagano organizers agreed this month to raise the start of the course on Mount Karamatsu to an altitude of 5,791 feet. The new start stands on an exposed face of the mountain with no wind breaks.

Itoh said the relative lack of snow in and around Nagano going into the holidays doesn't worry him and -- contrary to popular belief -- isn't all that unusual.

"We usually start to get more snow around Christmas or New Year's anyway," he said. "It's probably better not to have a lot of snow fall now and then not fall later on when it counts."