These Experts Warn of a 'House of Cards' on the Slopes

The AP explains how a weak bottom layer creates life-threatening conditions
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 10, 2024 3:25 PM CST
Avalanche Experts Worry About This Year's Scant Snow
Trees are covered in snow after a recent avalanche on Henderson Mountain on Jan. 29 near Cooke City, Montana.   (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Avalanche safety specialists say their job has become more difficult in recent years as climate change brings extreme weather, and surging numbers of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers visit backcountry areas since the COVID-19 pandemic. More people means more chances to trigger fatal avalanches, despite technological advances in safety equipment, explains the AP in a look at the issue.

  • This year, experts say the potential for hazardous avalanches has set in for the winter for many mountain ranges. Scant snowfall across much of the US West early in the season created an unstable layer at the bottom of the snowpack. That dangerous condition is likely to persist for months, says Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

  • "That weak layer, when we get snowfall on top of it, it's a house of cards," says Chabot.
  • As snow gets deeper, it can get denser and stronger. But as it goes through temperature changes—which are more likely and more dramatic when the snow is not deep, a variable that's shifting with climate change-induced droughts—it sometimes transforms into sugar-like crystals. Those crystals are quick to collapse when the weight above them gets too heavy, such as after a large snowfall or when the wind piles snow on one side of a mountain.
Read the full story, which details the close call of a Minnesota man who barely survived an avalanche near Yellowstone National Park while snowmobiling in Montana. (More avalanche stories.)

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