British Columbia

Computer simulations give avalanche forecasters deeper insight, says researcher

A researcher says new computer simulations could help predict avalanches and aid forecasters in keeping people safe in the backcountry.

Avalanche Canada said it is incorporating new techniques in its warnings

New research makes the case for use of computer models to help keep people safe from avalanches. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

A researcher says new computer simulations could help predict avalanches and aid forecasters in keeping people safe in the backcountry.

The simulated snow-cover models can accurately detect and track avalanche hazards, according to Simon Horton, a Simon Fraser University post-doctoral fellow and forecaster with Avalanche Canada. He was part of an international team of scientists from Canada, France and Switzerland that developed the models.

"Typically, an avalanche forecaster relies heavily on observations from the field, people going out and looking at the snow observing weather, and we can't do that at all times in all situations," Horton said. "Some areas, we don't have adequate observations in the field. Other times it's too dangerous to go out. 

"But with these simulations, we can do predictions pretty much anywhere at any time."

Avalanche control work along Highway 1 in B.C. (B.C. Ministry of Transportation)

The researchers looked at 16 years of data on weather conditions, snow cover and avalanches from three sites: Whistler and Rogers Pass in B.C. and Weissfluhjoch at Davos, Switzerland. 

They used this data to run simulations that could determine avalanche risk and classify avalanche situations.

"Avalanche conditions change really rapidly with evolving weather," Horton said. "These models … analyzed specific weather patterns to identify what type of avalanche sizes we have."

The researchers say their simulated avalanches lined up well with the avalanches actually observed at Whistler, Rogers Pass and Weissfluhjoch.

The researchers' findings were published in the February issue of the journal Cold Regions Science and Technology 

A spokesperson from Avalanche Canada said in an email that the agency worked with the researchers on the models.

"Indeed, we are using these models as part of our forecasting process," the spokesperson wrote.

Horton believes the models will improve backcountry safety.

"By having more tools to make these forecasts more accurate, precise, localized, we'll hopefully be able to offer better advice for people going out so that they can make safer decisions in the mountains," he said.

Avalanche Canada issued a special avalanche warning for much of B.C. and Western Alberta Thursday.

As of Monday evening, the warning remains in effect.

With files from Steve Venegas

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