Air Date: Week of January 23, 1998
This winter has seen an alarming number of avalanche fatalities with at least 30 people in the U.S. and Canada buried alive in snow. Experts say a lack of training among skiers, snoeshoers and snowmobilers is responsible for most avalanche disasters. But, some experts are also concerned that logging has made the situation worse. All this is happening at the same time that funding for avalanche forecasting centers is being squeezed. From our Northwest Bureau at KPLU in Seattle, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Outdoor winter sports experts are saying that this season they're seeing an alarming number of avalanche fatalities. If the pace continues it will set a record. So far more than 30 people in the US and Canada have been buried alive in snow. Backcountry experts say a lack of training among skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers is responsible for most avalanche disasters. But some experts are also concerned that logging has made the situation worse, and all this is happening at the same time that funding for avalanche forecasting centers is being squeezed. From our Northwest Bureau at KPLU in Seattle, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.
(A phone rings. A man's voice answers: "This is the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. The zone forecast for the Olympics and Washington Cascades near and west of the crest, an avalanche warning. High avalanche danger below 7,000 feet Tuesday and Tuesday night...")
FITZ PATRICK: Every morning meteorologists in Seattle let people know if it's safe to head into the mountains. Lately, the advice has been: stay home.
MAN: Please note that backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended on Tuesday.
FITZ PATRICK: Severe swings in mountain weather, with heavy snowfalls, stiff winds, and rapid temperature changes, have made this a particularly deadly winter. Extreme conditions have created an unstable snowpack.
BRILL: Okay, so we're going to start heading up the hill here. It looks like I'll have to go this way.
(Footfalls crunch on snow)
FITZ PATRICK: High in the Cascade Range, backcountry guide Gary Brill tries to teach people to spot avalanche warning signs.
BRILL: We're not used to being in charge of our own survival. But in the backcountry in skiing, snowshoeing, whatever, you definitely are.
(Squeaking sounds of fabric, followed by more footfalls on snow)
FITZ PATRICK: Bundled in Polarfleece and Gortex, Mr. Brill and 9 students are making their way through an Alpine meadow. It's a picture-postcard scene. Until Mr. Brill digs a pit and discovers what every guide dreads.
(A shovel digs)
FITZ PATRICK: Layer upon layer of different kinds of snow.
FITZ PATRICK: Dry, fluffy layers. Firm, wet layers. They're easy to spot.
FITZ PATRICK: You can even hear the layers as Mr. Brill wiggles a thin metal gauge through the snow.
BRILL: There's a little bit of a crusty layer in there, and it might be a sliding point. And notice how right here, right underneath this ice layer, it falls apart. That's what will tend to avalanche.
FITZ PATRICK: An avalanche is caused when layers of snow fail to bond together. A weak layer can begin to slide naturally or when a person travels across it. Most avalanches involving people are actually triggered by people moving over the snow. This realization was an eye-opener for class member Karen Arkin.
ARKIN: It's beautiful out here and you think hey, let's go skiing. You look at it and you think wow, this is awesome powder, and that's what I thought when we got out here. And then the first time Gary stopped us, he said, "This is really cruddy." (Laughs) And I was shocked.
FITZ PATRICK: Classes like this have become more common with the growth of backcountry sports. Although these students are learning basic skills, Gary Brill sometimes wonders if a single field trip creates a false sense of security.
BRILL: I think I'm part of the problem if I let people have the feeling that once they learn these things they've got them down, and that then they're safe. I think as long as I preach caution and talk about probabilities and that it can happen to you, then I'm not.
(Calling to the group) Start moving down! Let's watch and see what happens.
FITZ PATRICK: The concern over avalanches goes beyond the level of training among backcountry adventurers. It also involves one of America's most controversial environmental issues: clear-cut logging.
LA CHAPELLE: There's a lot of naturally-created avalanches out there, but there are quite a few that have been artificially created by removing the timber cover.
FITZ PATRICK: Ed LaChapelle, a retired geophysics professor from the University of Washington, says clear-cutting has turned many hillsides into avalanche zones.
LA CHAPELLE: Removing the timber in the first place removes the stabilizing effect of all the tree trunks that anchor the snow. But as soon as you open up a slope which was previously covered by timber, you change the character of the snow deposition and the way the weather affects it.
FITZ PATRICK: Mr. LaChapelle says that hillsides exposed to the weather tend to have weaker snow packs and are prone to avalanches and mudslides. It's uncertain how many avalanche zones have been created by logging. The first effort to establish a number is now underway in Canada. Timber companies we contacted about this research either hadn't heard of the concern, or dismissed it.
(A phone rings.)
FITZ PATRICK: Regardless of whether avalanches occur naturally or are caused by people, the Northwest Avalanche Center in Seattle attempts to predict them.
(Various electronic sounds)
FITZ PATRICK: Meteorologist Mark Moore monitors regional snow conditions through a network of remote weather stations.
(To Moore:) So what's going on here?
MOORE: This shows the last 24 hours worth of mountain weather information we have from an automated site at Stephens Pass.
FITZ PATRICK: So they got hammered, it looks like.
MOORE: They got hammered last night, yeah.
FITZ PATRICK: In a 5-hour period, Stephens Pass received a foot of new snow. This prompts an avalanche alert on the Center's hotline.
MOORE: Avalanches are expected on mainly northeast- through southeast-facing slopes, and travel in avalanche terrain not recommended for Wednesday. Periods of light snow...
FITZ PATRICK: Two thousand people a week call the center to check the latest mountain weather conditions. The companion web site logs more than 20,000 hits per week. However, budget cuts nearly forced the facility to close this year. Washington legislators cut the state's contribution in half. Representative Maryann Mitchell says those who benefit from the forecasts, such as skiers, should pay more of the costs.
MITCHELL: They should participate. We did not expect them to pay all of it. If they care about their sport, they should be willing to help make sure that it's safe. We require that in other kinds of things. You know, boaters help to pay for water safety. And the same should be true in the mountains.
FITZ PATRICK: This philosophy has prompted budget cuts affecting avalanche centers throughout the western US over the past several years. Most of the facilities already receive funding from ski areas, snowmobile associations, and private donors. But forecasters say it's been a scramble to survive. Some have relied on bake sales and charity banquets. The US Forest Service is hoping to enlist outdoor equipment manufacturers and major corporations to help. Supporters, like Brooke Drury of the Mountaineers Club in Seattle, say the challenge is to demonstrate that avalanches threaten highways and rail lines that are important to everyone.
DRURY: It's not just backcountry users that benefit from the avalanche center. It's basically anyone who travels over the pass during the winter season. If we don't know what is going on up in the mountains with respect to not only avalanche conditions but also winter mountain weather, we're going to be in big trouble.
FITZ PATRICK: An emergency grant from Washington's governor has kept the Northwest Center alive this year. And Ms. Drury is forming a friends organization to solicit donations. For now, though, the future of avalanche forecasting in one of America's most popular winter recreation areas remains in doubt. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.
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