Technology for Predicting Avalanches (Avalanche)

Snow-covered landscapes can be beautiful, but they can also be deadly. 37 people died last year in a catastrophic avalanche in America. Avalanche forecasters regularly give skiers warnings about the risks they face.

Ethan Greene leads the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and he spoke to VOA via Zoom. “You are given many opportunities to escape death, by not getting caught in an avalanche,” he explained.

To promote safety in skiing, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides interactive avalanche maps and weekly forecasts.

For example, Brian Lazar, an avalanche forecaster, recorded and broadcast the following warning, “… The slopes that were safe for skiing over the past few weeks are no longer safe.”

Weather satellite photos and geo-spatial databases of mountainous areas help forecasters anticipate the risk of avalanches. Fortune tellers also make holes in the snow by hand.

Avalanche forecaster Bren Pritchett, for example, shows examples of weak and dangerous snow in a video produced by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “You see the frost is huge under this layer of snow,” he explained.

A faster way to obtain this data comes from a laser-based device called LIDAR.

An avalanche that killed an unidentified snowboarder, Sunday, February 14, 2021, near the city of Winter Park in Colorado. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center via AP)

An avalanche that killed an unidentified snowboarder, Sunday, February 14, 2021, near the city of Winter Park in Colorado. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center via AP)

Kevin Hammonds, director of the SubZero Research Lab in Montana, and he explains how this LIDAR tool works. “This tool has a range of up to 10 kilometers and can conduct 360-degree surveys,” he explained.

Hammonds is also researching with a tool called a “smart probe”. “It has both a pressure-resistant sensor and an infrared sensor, so when you study snow, it collects all the data,” he added.

So far there is no technology that can predict every avalanche, and as a result experts recommend that skiers take safety lessons as well as a avalanche beacon or a device that emits a signal to detect people buried under the snow.

“It’s a radio that sends a signal, everyone in your group has to carry it. If someone is trapped in the avalanche, his friends can detect the signal and find the person buried in the snow,” explained Ethan Greene.

Even a small mistake can lead to disaster, so Ethan Greene advises, “The most important thing to do is to put the technology between your ears, your brain, to make good decisions and avoid slopes where avalanches are likely to occur.”

And also with the help of technology, winter sports lovers have a better chance of surviving skiing on these snowy slopes. [jm/lt]