Communities Vulnerable to Avalanche Hazards

In choosing a specific topic within Avalanche Mitigation, three factors baffled me in the beginning. First was inconsistency in the documentation of past Snow Avalanches around the world. Try googling “10 deadliest avalanches in history,” and you will not get the same lists, and most will barely overlap. The second was a question of which avalanche organizations were the authority and which organizations were merely trying to sell me something. As you can see from Williams’ definition of the traits of a sustainable avalanche center, these organizations make a lot of sense for these organizations to continue to survive. They need to draw in customers to purchase the research and knowledge to continue the work. I will admit I almost signed up for an online intro course. The third piece that confused me is there seems to be no central hub of oversite for this national natural hazard. The US Forest Service initially led the charge, given most recreational areas were located on parkland. However,in the 1980s, during a round of budget cuts and a shift to other pressing problems, avalanche centers were encouraged to branch out and seek funding from the recreationists utilizing the collected data. Assimilating this data, I came to see that avalanche research and mitigation for recreational areas was well supported and secure in their future so long as American’s crave the adventure offered in the snowy backcountry.

The concern that became more apparent the further I looked was the loss of neighborhood support and safety in mountainous areas. Tourists to mountain towns and those buying land are not always there forbackcountry recreation. They want a peaceful snow vacation. As such, funding for research and mitigation of natural disasters inside cities/towns tends to be reactionary by nature. Something happens, the damage is done, we clean up the mess, and then look to preventing it in the future. However, there is a process for predicting snow avalanches, perhaps not the exact date and time, but there are methods for determining hazard zones. Gather details on specific criteria and calculate the combined likelihood of an avalanche occurring given those factors and typical weather patterns. Kenneth Leon Niemczyk gathered data in 1984 to see which factors were being utilized for this very thing and found no two counties used the same criteria. By the end of the 20th-century, scientists have learned the likely causes of an avalanche. Slope angle, the elevation of the slope, directional face, and ground cover of the area all change the likelihood of an avalanche forming and starting. It is hard to believe, with this data gathered and refined over the last 50 plus years, scientists cannot agree on a set of criteria and a solid (if imperfect) method for compiling the results and determining safe and unsafe areas to build homes, storefronts, etc. While liability concerns are valid, is it not the scientific community’s duty to mitigate hazards and lower potential loss of life in whatever way they can?

Dick Penniman, who studied the political dilemma of Hazard Zoning, put it quite well: “Knowing the confusion and anger that already existed throughout the community, few consultants were willing to add their names to the growing list of perceived villains.” It is difficult to put your name on the line in an age of lawsuits in what will likely be an unpopular outcome, given everyone wants a mountainside vacation spot, and there are not that many locations left in relatively safe places.

As it seems to me, the solution is this: public funding should support public safety, and in areas prone to snow and winter wonderlands, there should be a concentrated effort to educate the public and minimize the threat. We cannot eliminate the danger [and what fun is life without a bit of risk anyway]. Still, if we come together scientifically and as a community, we can better protect ourselves and those who come to play in our backyard.