Many areas around the world have experienced extremely high snowfall this winter season. Although outdoor enthusiasts might be excited about this, with high snowfall, the risk of avalanches is much higher. This season alone there have been 11 avalanche-related deaths recorded in the western United States.
In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. According to National Geographic: “Avalanches are most common during and in the 24 hours right after a storm that dumps 12 inches (30 centimeters) or more of fresh snow. The quick pileup overloads the underlying snowpack, which causes a weak layer beneath the slab to fracture.”
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) January 16, 2019
Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.
Switzerland isn’t the only place where the risk of having an avalanche is high. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIF), a non-profit organization that aims to provide avalanche forecasts and education, Colorado has the highest amount of casualties due to avalanches in the United States, with 59 deaths from 2008-2017. Washington and Montana also had significant fatalities with 39 and 34 respectively.
Advanced technology, however, is helping researchers find new ways to prevent such severe avalanches. The Obell’x gas exploder is a spaceship-looking device that mixes oxygen and hydrogen gases. It is put into place by helicopters and can be triggered remotely, which enhances the safety and protection of avalanche workers.
— MND Group (@MndGroup) January 6, 2019
Jamie Yount of the Colorado Department of Transportation explained the technology to CGTN America. “There’s a little spark plug that goes off, so you get that initiation of the explosion,” he said. “And then the shock wave comes out of the explosion chamber and triggers an avalanche in the starting zone.”
Avalanches pose risks to more than just people in the backcountry. Towns and villages located at the base of a mountain can be put in jeopardy. During an avalanche, falling snow and debris can reach speeds of 80 miles per hour (130 kilometers per hour), presenting a threat to people as well as buildings and roads.
In the case of one-road towns, avalanches can threaten tourism. Two avalanche gullies, for example, can shut down traffic into Zermatt, Switzerland, a popular tourist hub.
Backcountry activity can be a dangerous game. But lovers of the outdoors can take precautions, such being mindful of weather conditions and always have a partner. And, before heading out, make sure to know what to do in case of an emergency.
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