My turn: Support avalanche forecasting

Posted: Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I am passionate about ice skating and skiing on frozen ice. I constantly observe the weather and ice conditions around Juneau so that I can take advantage of any safe outdoor ice opportunity. I take note as the ice develops. I break the ice and look at the structure to see if it is solid or if it has air bubbles to determine its strength.

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The ice pack is constantly changing from the numerous freeze and thaw cycles. As the slush builds up and refreezes, the structure changes and so does the strength. I drill the ice as it gets thicker and note the resistance as the bit carves through the changing layers. Important information for a skater or skier if they want to safely enjoy the ice.

The snow pack in the mountains above Juneau is like the ice pack, it is constantly changing, even more so. It is subject to wind and more extreme temperatures and various types of snow, rain and everything in between. It is in constant flux, changing with the weather, building up in layers over layers of ice, sugar like snow, dense and not so dense, strong and weak.

This changing snow pack covers the slopes of Mount Juneau above our community and the mountains around us that we work and play in. I have seen photographs of the 1960's Behrends chute avalanche that destroyed several homes. I have observed the towering mass of jumbled concrete like snow, dirt and tree limbs pushing against a garage from the 1980s avalanche down the Behrends chute.

Driving Thane Road, you have the opportunity to observe avalanche debris almost every spring. Hiking Perseverance trail this spring you had the opportunity to observe the remnants of a large slide that carried several 500-pound-plus boulders across gold creek and deposited them on the other side of the river. Quite a destructive force. Avalanches happen constantly in different shapes and sizes. Several backcountry travelers in Alaska are killed every year from them.

Bill Glude is a very close friend of mine. He is passionate about snow and more particularly avalanches. He has studied them for more than 30 years. He has been caught in them and lost friends to them. He founded and has directed Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center to study avalanches and educate Alaskan's about them.

Occasionally, I help him dig a snow pit to expose the numerous layers of snow and ice that expose the history of snow pack. Glude checks the layers for density, measuring the weights of each different layer. He looks at the snow crystal structure to determine if it is smooth or sharp, weak or strong. He takes temperatures of the different layers to determine if the layers will change in structure or remain the same. He takes meticulous notes and photographs to document each pit. He then tests the pack for weakness seeing how much pressure it takes to make a snow column fail. He does this from the beginning of the winter to the end. He constantly monitors the weather, putting all the pieces together to determine if the snow pack is weak or strong, safe or unsafe. Through this constant monitoring, he determines the potential for avalanches.

Glude has been doing this through the SAAC for years. Backcountry travelers and property owners have enjoyed the predictions from this labor to know if the mountains are friendly or foe.

Last year, SAAC had a contract with the city of Juneau to forecast avalanche potential on Mt. Juneau. It was a record snowfall; there were several days when the avalanche potential was extreme. Residents of Juneau were notified and urged to seek shelter outside of known avalanche zones. Backcountry travelers also used these forecasts to supplement their decisions as to when and where they should travel in the local mountains.

We can't stop the snow from falling. But we can monitor it and determine when it is weak and when it has the potential to slide. For around the cost of a $5 cheeseburger for each resident of Juneau, the SAAC can provide avalanche forecasting for Mount Juneau. Quite a bargain to prevent the loss of a human life.

• Marc Scholten has worked as a recreation forester for the U.S. Forest Service since 1991, volunteered with Juneau Nordic Ski Club for 12 years and is a Juneau resident.

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