Jan
23
2008

Snowed under: This could be the deadliest winter for avalanches in U.S. history

Edge of the avalanche: Skiers in Norway this winter were carefully navigating their way along a high-risk avalanche area.
Edge of the avalanche: Skiers in Norway this winter were carefully navigating their way along a high-risk avalanche area.Courtesy Jef Maion
Several recent winters of below average snow falls in the U.S. have left skiers and snowmobilers chomping at the bit. But this year there has been a steady diet of snow to keep everyone schussing and zooming about.

Great news, right? For the most part, yes. But with the increased snow comes increased risk of avalanches. And with the reported avalanche deaths in the country through mid January numbering 15, we’re on pace to top the national record of 35 avalanche-related deaths that was set in the 2001-02 snow season. Typically, there are about 25 avalanche deaths nationwide each winter. In Washington state alone, however, there have been nine deaths already this season compared to an annual average of just two avalanche-related deaths per season.

What’s to blame for the unusual spike in snowy deaths? Weather experts are putting out a couple theories.

Race that avalanche: Science Buzz recommends that you don't try this the next time you hit the slopes. Avalanches can get roll much faster than most of us can ever hope to ski.
Race that avalanche: Science Buzz recommends that you don't try this the next time you hit the slopes. Avalanches can get roll much faster than most of us can ever hope to ski.Courtesy Andre Charland
First, there’s the growing popularity of backcountry skiing and snowmobiling. What used to be the sole domain of specially trained and equipped backcountry experts is opening up to more people seeking those special thrills, some who are not well-trained in avalanche dangers. Snow can break free in an avalanche just from the sound of snowmobiles or the sudden push off of ski.

Second, the western mountain ranges are getting a different combination of snow this season, due in part to La Niña weather conditions. The La Niña has doubled the amount of snowfall in many places in the west, but warmer weather in the fall, and during the snowfalls, have left the snow crust on the top of recent snowfalls weaker and easier to break loose into an avalanche.

Should anything be done with this more-dangerous-than-normal situation? In Europe, they don’t allow people to drive snowmobiles in the Alps to decrease avalanche risks. Should we try something like that here? Or are these snow fans assuming the risks when partaking in activities in like this? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

And courtesy of National Geographic, here's an interactive experience where you can create your own mountain avalanche.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

hmoob_muas's picture
hmoob_muas says:

its not safe anymore to ski right? plus this sounds pretty scary

posted on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 10:41am
ALK's picture
ALK says:

i think that people need to be smarter about skiing and snowmobiling. get educated and learn the ropes to skiing.

posted on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 10:47am
diamond2008's picture
diamond2008 says:

People shouldn't be doin something crazy like that anyways!!!

posted on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 10:53am
tiffany_88's picture
tiffany_88 says:

I think is becuase the global warming increae in the last years.

posted on Mon, 04/07/2008 - 12:00pm

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