If you’ve ever driven over Berthoud or Wolf Creek Pass or skied atop Copper Mountain, you might have noticed a series of towers and fenced-off structures braving the elements at high altitude. These are weather stations—specifically Automatic Weather Observing System (AWOS) units—and they weren’t just built for meteorologists.

About 20 years ago, the Colorado Division of Aeronautics began installing these stations—there are nearly 60 across the state, 13 of which are in the mountains—to keep general aviators safe while flying their planes over Colorado’s rugged and often-perilous terrain. Unlike commercial aircraft, which fly more than 30,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, general aviators (primarily civilian aircrafts) often fly only a few thousand feet above the ground. In Colorado’s mountains, those pilots often encounter quick-changing and intense weather. That’s where the Division of Aeronautics, a subset of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), comes in. Focusing primarily on aviation safety across Colorado, the division works to ensure pilots have the most information possible regarding the weather in the mountains.

“[We] recognized that there wasn’t good weather information at the peaks of Colorado’s mountains,” says David Ulane, director of the Colorado Division of Aeronautics. “General aviation pilots needed the information to safely fly over our mountains.”

The aviation industry and the meteorology industry both care a lot about weather. Pilots need to know the weather conditions so they can make decisions about whether or not it’s safe to operate a plane, especially in the mountains, and meteorologists are trying to provide accurate forecasts for pilots and all Coloradans. Meteorological data like wind speed and direction, air pressure, humidity, and temperature is collected at airports and official reporting stations across the country, coded into a language that is easy for pilots to read, and dispensed appropriately.

Beginning this summer, thanks to a partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Colorado’s mountain AWOS units will feature cameras that enhance forecasting and visibility. Currently, very few AWOS units across the country have cameras. One exception to this is Alaska, where the FAA started a weather camera network several years ago. Due to a lack of interest, resources, and funding, the agency was unable to expand the network beyond the Last Frontier. That is, until recently.

Ulane knew about this camera network in Alaska and called the FAA to see if they wanted to partner with CDOT Aeronautics to install weather cameras on Colorado’s mountain AWOS units. Ulane says Alaska’s camera network has greatly reduced “look-see” accidents, where the weather doesn’t look bad, so pilots decide to go see if they can make it through treacherous airspace and get caught in adverse weather conditions. The cameras provide a real-time look at what weather conditions are like on top of mountains and through passes, information that has proven valuable in making safe pre-flight decisions.

The installation of the cameras—three or four per AWOS unit—should be completed by the end of the summer. An FAA team plans to come to Colorado in June to begin installing the cameras, starting in the northern part of the state and moving south throughout the warmer months. The cameras are designed to withstand harsh elements and have heated lenses that require little maintenance. In fact, Alaska has some cameras that have not needed maintenance in the seven years they’ve been in service. That’s good news, because Ulane notes a common joke around his office is that “CDOT Aeronautics put AWOS units where God didn’t intend AWOS units to be placed.”

The cameras will not only prove useful for general aviation pilots and meteorologists, but as an added perk, those who enjoy backcountry recreation will be able to make more informed decisions because of their presence. Pilots and other users in Colorado have been asking for a way to better visualize what is happening in our high country—now we’re getting a solution.

To view the Colorado AWOS units and see the cameras once they’ve been installed, use this map from the Division of Aeronautics.

Andy Stein
Andy Stein
Andy Stein is a freelance meteorologist with experience working on both local and national television.