It's the bright side of an otherwise disturbing picture.
Alberta's engineers in training have become passionately interested
in the problematical study of avalanche prediction and control.
Dr. Bruce Jamieson, P.Eng., bears witness to the fact.
University of Calgary researchers
start measurements at the crown fracture of a slab avalanche
in the Cariboo Mountains. The avalanche was triggered
by a snowmobiler traversing near the top left corner
of the photo.
-Dr. Bruce Jamieson, P.Eng., photo
He heads the modest (three graduate students, two winter
technicians) Applied Snow and Avalanche Research Group at
the University of Calgary. Limited room within the program
has forced him to discourage large numbers of grads anxious
to take part in this important project.
"The demand is huge," says Dr. Jamieson, an adjunct
associate professor of civil engineering. "I'm told I
turn away more grad students than any other professor in this
Dr. Jamieson is among the country's foremost experts in an
area which has assumed particular significance for concerned
Western Canadians. During the last five winters, an annual
average of 16 people in Canada have lost their lives in snow
avalanches, and the deaths are usually in Western Canada.
Researchers such as Dr. Jamieson, a lifelong mountaineer who
spends much of his winters testing, measuring and assessing
snowpack conditions in remote field stations, are fighting
the clock to reduce those numbers.
"Right now we have so many more questions than we have
answers," he explains. "There's a huge need for
"We still have a hard time determining whether a particular
slope is likely to slide or not, whether it can be skied upon
or not, on a particular day."
"Right now we have
so many more questions than we have answers. There's a huge
need for more research."
Dr. Bruce Jamieson, P.Eng.
Further Funding Needed
Along with his colleagues within the Canadian Avalanche Association
(he chairs the CAA's technical committee), Dr. Jamieson is
grateful for the corporate and government funding already
set aside for their work.
Now he's hoping federal officials will come up with a bit
more, so the CAA can build from research by adding an operational
public safety program.
The CAA is aggressively seeking relatively modest sums to
increase existing forecast areas in Western Canada from five
to as many as nine, while seeking to limit the size of each
area. At the same time, the CAA seeks to boost its number
of weekly status bulletins from three to seven.
Dr. Jamieson estimates such improvements would cost an additional
$500,000 to implement - a bargain price when measured against
the lives they might save.
On a separate front, Dr. Jamieson has submitted a proposal
to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of
Canada for establishment of an industrial research chair to
enhance Canadian forecasting techniques. He'd like to explore
the effects of solar warming and radiation on the mountain
Perhaps more importantly, he hopes to adapt a European decision
support scheme, a promising tool currently unavailable in
Canada. This strategic approach compares an analysis of a
given region's history of injurious avalanches with current
data, supplying skiers with specific advice about slopes to
avoid during a planned outing.
"Based on high-quality bulletins and high-quality maps,
the decision support scheme might suggest, for example, that
skiers avoid slopes of over 35 degrees," explains Dr.
Jamieson. "The scheme might suggest that Route A and
Route B are not recommended, but that a third proposed route
might work quite well as an alternative."
Last Winter's Tragedies
Last winter's depressing death toll is more than enough to
foster a sincere hope that such proposals meet with a sympathetic
hearing. Among the avalanche victims were seven students from
Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, near Okotoks, who died in February.
About 10 days earlier, another group of seven perished in
the mountains, including Naomi Heffler of Calgary, a certified
ski instructor, a U of C chemical engineering graduate who
had studied with Dr. Jamieson.
Naomi's tragic death inspired her father's employer, Alliance
Pipelines, to establish the $25,000 Naomi Heffler Memorial
Scholarship in Avalanche or Snow Science at U of C.
But more work remains. Dr. Jamieson, his research team, and
the Canadian Avalanche Association are doing a heroic job.
And every Canadian with even the slightest connection to the
great outdoors shares a stake in their efforts.