Now that spring has sprung, we can spend another thankful year safe from deadly avalanches. Dry slab avalanches (the deadliest kind) are the result of stratification of snow on mountainsides due to temperature changes or wind-blown snow deposits; when the top strata all slides down the mountainside in a clump, you’ve got an avalanche. This demonstration for grade-school science students replicates the effect using burlap, flour, sugar, and potato flakes. The Westwide Avalanche Network (run by the American Avalanche Professionals Association) can answer all your avalanche questions. Avalanche science is an area of academic inquiry that draws from physics, engineering, geology, and meteorology. Snow mechanics deals mostly with the physics and engineering sides. Modeling exactly what happens when several layers of snow break loose from a mountainside takes some computational oomph; designing avalanche barriers takes real engineering knowhow. The science is largely geared towards avalanche prediction and control, a matter of concern for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab but also to small bands of interested experts. The general idea is to identify the conditions that make avalanches most likely and to create small, safe, controlled ones to pull of the dangerous layers of snow.
Avalanche science may be simply be interesting to people who want their work on fluid dynamics and snow creep to have a tangible benefit to society: fewer deaths, less property damage, no further events like the 1910 avalanche in Washington State that killed almost one hundred people. But the fascination of the avalanche (in science and popular culture) seems to extend beyond that. Does the fear of being buried alive — so common in Victorian England and so prevalent in the work of Poe — make death by avalanche seem all the more, pardon the phrase, chilling? An avalanche victim, surrounded by tons of ice and snow, battered by trees and rocks, disoriented and confused about which way is up, running out of air, has time to contemplate his or her fate.
The ski and back-country tourism industries obviously have a vested interest in avalanche prevention; a handful of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobile riders die every year. Proper use of avalanche gear (a GPS beacon, a snow shovel, and avalanche probe for trying to locate buried people, and more esoteric equipment) can increase your likelihood of surviving an avalanche, but not getting caught in one is best.
It’s hard to imagine what it feels like when a mountain uproots itself. The scene in The Man Who Would Be King in which an avalanche takes out a bridge is not an exaggeration; see what an avalanche looks like in reality. The avalanche is a reminder of just how big a mountain is, of how big weather is, and how small people are. And every time people learn a little bit more about how an avalanche happens or invent something a little safer (like the avalanche air bag), they knock it down just slightly to something closer to human scale.