Computer program aims to predict Scots avalanches

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BRITAIN'S FIRST computer-assisted avalanche forecasts were made this week. On stream after trial runs in Scotland last year, the software should prove a major advance in predicting avalanches.

In the last 10 winters in the Highlands, 21 people were killed and 81 injured in snow slides. That total increased at the weekend when a schoolboy taking part in a charity walk died when a 200ft (61m) avalanche on Ben Nevis swept him away. Bruce Snodin, 17, of Callander, near Stirling, had been descending by the main tourist route.

Working in conjunction with the Swiss Federal Avalanche Research Institute based at Davos in the Swiss Alps, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) will use adapted Swiss computer technology and Met Office weather forecasts to predict avalanche dangers. Part of the programming involves comparing weather data from past years to assess 'avalanche days'.

Blyth Wright, co-ordinator of the SAIS, based at Glenmore Lodge, Aviemore, said: 'Last winter we ran the system in trials. Ideally you need three years of data. But this year, with only two years' information to work with, we have decided to go ahead. I have informed our observers that where a fine decision needs to be made, the computer will be used to carry the day.'

This week the Scottish Sports Council, which set up the SAIS four years ago, reissued a leaflet on the dangers of avalanches. It aims to end the myth that they occur only in the Alps.

Mr Wright said: 'It is also worth remembering that Britain's worst avalanche disaster occurred not in Scotland but in Sussex. In Christmas 1836, eight people died when a row of houses were covered in an avalanche.'

As winter progresses, various falls of snow produce layers which may have different properties. An avalanche occurs when one layer slides on another, or the snow slides on the ground. However, heavy snow falls do not necessarily mean dangerous avalanche conditions. 'Last year, with a poor snow record in Scotland, we had the worst period of recorded avalanche dangers. Rapidly fluctuating temperatures are more influential,' Mr Wright said.

With some of the best snow falls for 10 years in the Highlands, fingers are being crossed that the winter sports industry can repair some of the financial damage caused by poor snow in recent years. However, people taking to off-piste skiing to escape the crowds may wander on to avalanche-prone slopes.

The Nevis Range near Fort William now has computer-assisted avalanche forecasts and there are plans to extend the system to The Cairngorms, Glen Coe and Glen Shee in Tayside.

Mr Wright said: 'It's still pretty cold. We've had a lot of snow, and with high winds from the South, snow is distributed around the hills.' But it was not the job of the SAIS to say 'don't go on the hill'. The daily reports were about 'educating people to make their own decisions'.

SAIS line: 0463-713191.