Getting it right

by • October 31, 2016 • Safety MattersComments (0)974


Snow Summit 2015 featured a panel of speakers from agencies including the Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Department of Public Safety, Alaska Department of Labor, Rep. Shelley Hughes’ office and the public. Photo by Debra McGhan.

New technology helps users assess avalanche dangers

As the days grow shorter, the temperatures dip and termination dust builds, excitement for winter fun starts building inside all of us snow-sport enthusiasts.

October is a great time to drag out the sleds, skis, boards and snowshoes and start tuning up our gear. It’s also a good time to think about tuning up your snow-safety skills.

November is Avalanche Education Month in Alaska. That’s important because it’s an annual reminder that we live in a state that is ranked No. 1 in the nation for avalanche-related fatalities. Last year, Alaska suffered six fatal avalanches. It’s up to each of us to take responsibility to get educated and avoid becoming a statistic and increasing those dreaded numbers.

It is also time for the annual Alaska Snow Safety Summit, a gathering of professionals and policy makers who understand the significance and importance of snow safety in Alaska, where winter makes up more than half of the year.

This year’s summit will be held Nov. 3 at the BP Energy Center in Anchorage. The focus is on reviewing accomplishments from years past, setting new goals, and exploring the ways technology is changing snow forecasting and information sharing. There is a lot of excitement over the tools being developed to make it easier to stay safe in the wintery outdoors. From the new Mountain Hub launched by Avatech to advances in airbags, there is a lot of technology to talk about.

“We’re seeing some big changes coming due to technology making it so much easier to share information,” said Pete Carter, president of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

As the lead avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Department of Transportation in Thompson Pass, Carter knows a lot about snow, sharing information and the importance of getting it right.

“In short, the avalanche industry standard is, and must be, about data sharing,” Carter said. “Working at the industry standard is likely going to prove much better at keeping the Alaska heli guides out of the wringer than their insurance premiums. If everyone is working to share information, we’re going to know a lot more about what is happening out there in the mountains.”


Snow Summit 2014 featured Dave Hamre from the Alaska Railroad as the Keynote. Photo by Debra McGhan.

Carter shared the case of nine skiers who were killed in Canada on March 12, 1991, in which the heli-ski guides were sued for negligence.
According to the plaintiff in the case – the wife of a successful businessman and one of the nine victims – the defendants, the Canadian heli-ski company and the two guides with the skiers, were negligent for not better reviewing and understanding the shared information and assessing the potential dangers that existed that day.

David McClung, a professor of geophysics at the University of British Columbia, through his academic teaching and research focused on the science of avalanches, testified that the standard for avalanche forecasting is about data collection and analysis.

McClung testified in this case that in order for those in the field to be able to determine a clear picture of the conditions, a variety of aspects must be undertaken.

“The principle problem is with respect to the temporal and spatial variability of the snow cover,” McClung said.

He concluded that to ‘get it right,’ information must come from a variety of sources and one of those is observations while skiing (and or riding) on the snow. It must be a cumulative process starting from the beginning of the winter, monitoring the snowpack and the weather, keeping track of skiing and riding with all the different tests that are done and all the observations, and in particular discussion with fellow guides that includes stability tests and snow profiles.

“This means reviewing an immense database collection through the entire winter so perceptions and actions are based not just on what is observed on any particular day, but there is a history involved.” And that, said McClung, is very important.

In Alaska we have the opportunity to get it right by sharing information.

“The new tools out there will make this much easier,” Carter said. “But getting everyone on board to understand the importance and willing to share is going to take some work.

“The goal of this year’s summit is to continue raising awareness and finding ways to ensure that information is shared across all industries. That is the only way we are ever going to change attitudes, the culture and ensure the right information is getting out to the general public living, playing, traveling and working in the snow.”

The summit will be followed by a full day of workshops for snow-safety professionals, hosted by the Chugach National Forest Information Center, at the Alaska Pacific University and finally a day of education activities and opportunities for the general public at the Loussac Public Library on 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 5.

To learn more visit and click on Education.

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