Avalanche Risk and Safety Awareness

Located at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) promotes research in the Earth’s cryosphere – the portions of our planet where water exists in solid form.

This includes lake ice, river ice, sea ice, ice caps, ice sheets, permafrost, glaciers and snow cover, with the latter being of particular interest to snow sport enthusiasts. The NSIDC has grown from its original status as an analog archive and information center tasked with archiving data from the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year, to the technologically sophisticated data management and scientific research center it is today, with the ability to manage terabytes of data from NASA’s Earth Observing system satellite program, while at the same time gleaning information from the smallest text file relating to the cryosphere.

The NSIDC is intensely interested in areas where ice and snow may impact human populations, and special attention is paid to the dangers of avalanches, with the view to training and preparing people to deal with potentially life-threatening situations. The Colorado Avalanche Center notes that 89 percent of victims are between the ages of 20 and 29, with up to 89 percent being men. The fact that 75 percent of victims are experienced backcountry skiers should come as no surprise, considering the increased risk factor of skiing un-groomed trails. The increase in avalanche fatalities in recent years is attributed primarily to the increase in snow and mountain oriented recreation. Skiing, snowboarding and heli-skiing, as well as hiking and mountaineering in snow covered mountains, attract millions of adventurers every year. To accommodate all the adventure seekers, more roads, towns and resorts are being built in areas prone to naturally released avalanches. The increased activity in the mountains may also result in an increase in avalanches.

Avalanches are known to occur throughout the year, but there are certain times of the year where avalanche activity increases. In the northern hemisphere, the highest number of avalanche fatalities occurs from December through March when snowfall is highest, and when ski areas are at their busiest. May and June records reveal that avalanche incidents increase as summer draws near and snow begins to thaw, or unexpected snowfalls catch recreational skiers by surprise.

Although avalanches are a very real safety issue, being aware of what to look out for may help you avoid this danger, and if you should get caught in an avalanche, knowing what to do can quite literally be a life-saver, for you and your companions. More about this in the next article.