Avalanche danger persists across the Mountain West
Dr. Ethan Greene, the Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), says overall drier conditions this winter, followed by large snowstorms, have resulted in increased avalanche danger.
“We've had a very dry year. We have snow on the ground, but it's not very deep and in Colorado, that means that we're developing weak layers. We're developing structural weaknesses in the snowpack that are going to produce avalanches when we do get snow on them,” he said.
“So we have a very dry year right now, but it's February, and if we start getting really heavy snowfall on that existing weak structure, that's going to be a really big problem for us.”
CAIC observes avalanches and gathers information about avalanche activity on the ground and out in the field says Greene.
"Driving around and looking, counting and hiking or skiing up to avalanche slopes.”
Greene says it’s a complex system of data collection, and it can sometimes be incomplete due to constantly changing conditions.
In addition, some avalanches aren’t being recorded because most of them happen in the backcountry and during big storms where they can get covered up, which makes it challenging to ascertain trends in avalanche frequency and size.
“We count things the same way every year but we know that number is not complete. So when we look at historical trends and then try to project that into the future, it's really hard to make solid assessments of changes in those two parameters, frequency and size,” he said.
While climate change is certainly impacting avalanches, Dr. Greene says they are still assessing exactly how.
“Trying to make really good predictions about how climate change is going to affect things is hard. But, avalanche cycles are driven by the weather, and the weather is affected by climate change,” Dr. Greene said.
Specific weather events where there is heavy, wet snow, lead to increased avalanche danger. These events are often referred to as atmospheric rivers.
“A lot of water weight, a lot of heavy snow in a short amount of time typically produces big avalanches,” Dr. Greene said.
Backcountry recreationists make up the majority of avalanche fatalities in the Mountain West. Dr. Greene points out three things for anyone traveling into the backcountry: get current information about the terrain, make sure that you have proper rescue equipment and know how to use it, and “if you're going to spend time in avalanche terrain, taking a course where you're actually in the field with an instructor is super helpful,” he said.
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