Experts turn to technology for help with avalanche mitigation
At many ski and backcountry areas in the Northern Hemisphere, snow has been plentiful this winter.
“Phenomenal,” said one skier near Berthoud Pass in Colorado. “It’s deep, it’s soft. Perfect.”
But this embarrassment of riches for outdoor enthusiasts can be deep trouble once the snow starts moving. A number of serious avalanches have occurred in Europe. 11 avalanche deaths have been recorded in the western United States this season. Avalanche mitigation specialists are fighting back.
“So this is an Obell’x gas exploder,” said Jamie Yount, of the Colorado Department of Transportation, while standing in front of a remote-controlled device. It looks like a space capsule and mixes oxygen and hydrogen gases.
“There’s a little spark plug that goes off, so you get that initiation of the explosion,” said Yount, CDOT’s Avalanche Program Manager. “And then the shock wave comes out of the explosion chamber and triggers an avalanche in the starting zone.”
Breaking up huge snow deposits before they come crashing down on unsuspecting skiers or motorists, avalanche blasting is certainly not new.
For years, crews have used long-range weaponry like howitzers and explosives to trigger snow slides in avalanche-prone areas. But that’s changing in places with lots of mountain passes, like in parts of Europe and here in Colorado.
“It’s actually a pretty exciting time,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “There’s a lot of technologies that are being used to try to improve avalanche safety.”
Greene points to examples like thermal imaging which allows crews to better understand an avalanche.
“How big it was, how far it ran, how much mass it moved,” he said. “These are things that are really important to us.”
So is defusing avalanche danger at night with minimal impact to the traveling public.
“We may want to take care of it while we can’t see – when it’s snowing really hard,” Greene said. “A time of peak instability, that’s when we really want to get in there and do some work.”
The Obell’x pods, built by a French company and installed by helicopter, cost $120,000 apiece. The state of Colorado has ordered 15 of them, touting the power of their blasts and impact on worker safety.
“We see a lot of avalanche activity here and so it is something we take very seriously,” Yount said.
Skiers are always told to take precautions for avalanches.
“The last thing I want to do is die in an avalanche,” said one.
But mitigation efforts are also a priority. These days, they have a high tech feel.
- Contributors can log in for advertising-free pages.