The backcountry of Western Canada's mountain ranges attracts thousands of people each year who want to experience nature at its best. Bruce Jamieson, NSERC Research Chair in Snow Avalanche Risk Control, has spent 24 years researching avalanches to help these adventurous people from seeing nature at its worst.
Avalanches are an ever-present danger for those travelling in the backcountry by foot, ski or snowmobile. During the winters of 1997 to 2007, 139 people lost their lives in 98 separate recreational avalanche accidents in Canada.
Thanks to extensive research, there's now much more information available about the dangers. The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) produces avalanche bulletins to help people understand the risks at a given time. One theme of Dr. Jamieson's research is that local conditions matter greatly and those making their way through the backcountry must do all they can to spot the right signs.
His research finds its way to backcountry guides, avalanche forecasters and the general public through a network of partnerships with industry and non-profit organizations.
"Reaching the public with increased avalanche risk information is essential, supporting backcountry users' decision making about proceeding into an area, or not, is critical as we work to increase safety and help save lives," says Dr. Jamieson, who is also an associate professor at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering.
His research team pioneered a technique for recognizing unstable snow known as "Pops and Drops." Ninety-two percent of recreational accidents involve dry-slab avalanches which are triggered by the victim or someone in their party. The usual cause is a thin, weak layer just beneath a cohesive slab of snow. The "Pops and Drops" technique involves a series of taps on the snow and then observing whether the snow breaks gradually, a little with each tap, or if it breaks more suddenly with a more extreme fracture—a pop or drop. The latter means a weak layer exists and the area should be avoided or precautions should be taken.
More recently, Dr. Jamieson's research team worked with the CAC to identify key indicators that backcountry travellers can refer to, together with avalanche bulletins, to help decide whether or not to proceed into a specific area.
"Many of these ‘bulletin regions' are greater than 10,000 square kilometres in area, while the area travelled during a typical recreational backcountry journey may involve exposure to less than 10 square kilometres of terrain," says Dr. Jamieson. "Given the variability that can occur in snowpack conditions, recreational travellers should ‘localize' the avalanche danger by making certain observations during their journey."
Known for their extensive field work, Dr. Jamieson's team spent 174 days observing basins, comparing CAC avalanche warnings with local conditions to help identify the key observations for localizing the avalanche danger. Now, his team is pioneering the use of thermal photography to better understand the complex heat transfer happening in a snow pack as the sun provides heat from above and the ground releases heat from below.
"To the naked eye it may look static, but there's lots happening that could potentially contribute to avalanches," says Dr. Jamieson. "The more knowledge we can gather, the more information we can provide to help people make good, safe decisions."
Ultimately, it comes down to a person's decision to venture, or not venture, into a potential avalanche zone. Understanding the risks and knowing how to spot the signs of danger will help more outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the country in front of them, rather than worry about what might be coming down the mountain behind them.