Avalanche approaching: James Cusick explains how new forecasting techniques could save lives on the ski slopes

On the Weissfluhjoch mountain above the fashionable ski resort of Davos in Switzerland, a small international research centre is seeking to develop forecasting techniques that will unlock the secrets of one of nature's most powerful events - the avalanche. A fortnight ago, five British doctors and their ski guide lost their lives in an avalanche in France. Before the winter is over, avalanches are likely to claim many more lives.

The Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research is headed by a former nuclear physicist, Othmar Buser. The physics of snow, especially the mass of snow and ice that overcomes frictional resistance on a sloped surface, is now Dr Buser's business.

Although avalanches can occur during heavy storms when snow is still falling, most take place when the enormous power stored in accumulated snow is released. Weak spots occur in the packed snow near ground level and these act as a sort of lubricant but it is the upper layers of a snowpack, usually having less dense ice crystals, that begin sliding down mountains.

The traditional method of studying avalanche potential and evaluating danger, according to Dr Buser, focused on building up snow profiles and gathering weather data. Such profiles in most of Europe's main ski and climbing areas date back 50 years. But the emphasis then switched to computerising comparative statistics. The Davos institute is attempting to marry computer programming techniques based on human knowledge of avalanches with the more established comparison methods. The result, still some way off, is expected to represent a leap forward in forecasting techniques.

NXD, or 'nearest neighbours', is the name the institute gives one of its most commonly used techniques. The model incorporates information on: the comparative weight of new snow; wind direction and velocity, thus measuring snow drift; comparisons in temperatures through the snowpack; and air temperatures. Note will also be taken of the angle of a particular slope, the shape of the terrain, its orientation towards sun and wind and the altitude of the mountain slope.

Given that a winter in Switzerland lasts around 270 days, and the collected data spans 20 years, the number of 'comparison' days available to the institute is 5,000. The 10 days nearest to the 'measured' conditions are delivered from the data bank. If an avalanche occurred on three of those 10 days, then the model estimates there is a 90 per cent chance of an avalanche occurring. Essentially, 'nearest neighbours' is an evaluation of any slope's inherent stability, given the histories of similar slopes in similar conditions.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) in Aviemore feeds mountain statistics from Scotland into the Swiss data bank. The SAIS also uses the 'nearest neighbours' model based on data it has gathered over the past five years. Valuable research on the effects of rain on snow, a phenomenon not too well-known in Switzerland, but familiar to Scottish skiers and climbers, is now sent to Davos.

Another computer program, Avaloc, using the knowledge of mountain experts to build up slope profiles, was also developed at Davos. Past data, crucial to NXD, is not required. Instead hundreds of 'expert' rules are fed into a multi-factorial program that also produces a stability index.

Using both programs a ski resort can produce an avalanche warning index of one to five (where five represents the highest risk). High-risk areas in a resort can be 'cleaned' of avalanche hazards with explosive charges causing controlled slides.

Dr Buser said: 'Although this sounds like a lot of data has to be gathered, the systems have been designed so that they can run on small portable computers.'

A French version of an advanced NXD system, known as 'Adiclhima' is operated in Tignes, scene of last week's avalanche. The French also have a complex program that models the evolution of a snowpack and takes in national weather and snow statistics. The system, known as Crocus, has to be run on a large mainframe computer.

Working alongside Dr Buser is Robert Bolognese. He aims to merge NXD and Avaloc into a new system that will utilise artificial intelligence, the expert model, and past statistics, into one forecasting package. Early results of the system, named NX-Loc, according to Dr Buser, are encouraging. But there is a strong element of pragmatism in the way he views science and its ability to deal with the avalanche. 'We have more new ideas, but we are never going to be able to calculate this as we would one of Newton's laws. It is not like a pencil falling down.'

What would he like to see happen? 'What we should be able to do is to go inside a dangerous slope to do the measurements. But you don't go there because it's dangerous, do you?'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable