January 20, 2009

Experts Use New Snow Lab To Predict Avalanches

Ed Adams, a civil engineering professor used to spend time studying the nature of avalanches after setting them off with dynamite from a nearby shack on a steep slope at Bridger Bowl in Montana.

Now, Adams, 58, has traded in his dynamite for a more sophisticated approach: using a $2 million lab aimed at gaining a better understanding of how avalanches occur, and more importantly how to predict them.

Based at Montana State University, the so-called Subzero Research Facility was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Murdock Charitable Trust.

"I don't know of anything quite like this in the world," Dr. Adams said in 2006. "The Japanese have some excellent facilities, including one very large cold chamber. The U.S. military has some excellent low-temperature wind chambers. However, this facility will be unique in that it will bring so many things together."

The lab will help experts gain a better understanding of the often hard to grasp nature of avalanches.

"Snow seems simple, but it's extraordinarily complex," Dr. Adams told the New York Times. "If I set a box of snow in the refrigerator and come back in an hour, it's changed significantly. It's almost always in a constant state of motion, and studying it is a moving target."

"We want to understand what conditions cause the change in the crystalline structure and the bonding between crystals," he said.

Avalanches are difficult to understand, and they can be a violent force - there have been 31 fatalities this winter season, 16 in the United States and 15 in Canada, according to the New York Times. Researchers say the lab will help this issue by giving them the ability to tweak a variety of conditions.

"The number of fatalities we have had shows they're a difficult phenomenon for us to understand," said Karl Birkeland, an avalanche scientist at the Forest Service's National Avalanche Center.

"There's definitely a need to better understand them."

Adams' previous data collection methods included he and his colleagues studying the affects of a contained avalanche using a laptop to document information on velocity, depth, flow and temperature.

The new lab will allow researchers to set the artificial sun at varying conditions to form different structures of snow crystals, which will be studied under a microscope to determine what conditions make the strongest or weakest layers.

Adams says weak snow layers are to blame for avalanches.

"The weak layers are faceted crystals, very smooth and unbonded to each other," he told the New York Times.

"It's like a layer cake with very weak frosting."

Birkeland, of the Forest Service's National Avalanche Center, said this winter season had laid weak layers of snow, followed by heavy storms, which added extra load to the already weak base.

Adams will combine his previously collected data from setting off avalanches with the new data he gains at the subzero lab. His team plans to combine that data with results from a thermal imaging program developed with Thermal Analytics, a company based in Houghton, Mich. The system, which creates far more detailed data than any previous modeling, is expected to greatly enhance forecasting. It will go into use here in Bozeman in two weeks, said the New York Times.

"We have tons of people out in the backcountry" pursuing various forms of recreation, said Mark Staples, a researcher who forecasts conditions for the avalanche center for the Gallatin National Forest.

"There's a lot of variability spatially and temporally. Some days it's safe, and some days less so. But we only have three people forecasting, so the more we can use what Ed's doing, the more we can forecast over a wider area."


On the Net:

Montana State University

National Science Foundation

M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust

National Avalanche Center