Terri-Jane Yuzda


Avalanche Research Builds
U of C Following

Freelance Columnist



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.

Fracture Measured
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 department."

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 more research.

"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 snowpack.

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.

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