Snow man

Snow man

For years,he observed—and survived—self-inflicted avalanches. Now,Ed Adams is studying the behavioural complexities of snow in a ‘cold lab’ to better predict deadly avalanches

For years,he observed—and survived—self-inflicted avalanches. Now,Ed Adams is studying the behavioural complexities of snow in a ‘cold lab’ to better predict deadly avalanches
Not long ago,Ed Adams,a civil engineering professor,studied avalanches by setting them off with dynamite and studying their movement as they buried him,his instruments and his colleagues.

Recently,though,Adams,a 58-year-old materials researcher,started a new and somewhat quieter phase of research,studying avalanches in the lab at Montana State University. A $2 million “cold lab” financed primarily by the US National Science Foundation and the Murdock Charitable Trust,completed in November,allows Adams to replicate and control the uncontrollable field conditions of mountains in winter and understand in detail how snow behaves under widely varying conditions. The goal is to be better able to predict an avalanche.

Forecasting avalanches has always been as much an art as a science because of the wide variability of conditions,from time of day and year to type of snow,to slope and temperature. “Snow seems simple,but it’s extraordinarily complex,” Adams said. “If I set a box of snow in the refrigerator and come back in an hour,it’s changed significantly. It’s almost always in a constant state of motion,and studying it is a moving target.” That is where the lab comes in,allowing researchers to vary the sky,sun and temperature to see how snow responds.

For years,Adams and his colleagues set up their instruments in a small shack on a steep slope at Bridger Bowl,about 15 miles from the university,and sent another researcher up the slope to ignite a two-pound bomb that set off an avalanche. As the wall of snow rumbled around or over the shack,Adams,bundled up against the cold,watched his laptop record information on velocity,depth,flow and temperature. He estimates he survived dozens of such self-inflicted avalanches.


In the cold lab,however,where the temperature is 8 degrees below zero,the focus is on a 1-square-metre panel,brilliantly lit by an artificial sun and watched over by an icy artificial sky that can be widely varied to replicate different winter conditions. “We want to understand what conditions cause the change in the crystalline structure and the bonding between crystals,” Adams said. It is the missing part of the puzzle of understanding avalanches.

The biggest cause of avalanches is a weak layer of snow on a slope covered by solid layers,Adams said. “The weak layers are faceted crystals,very smooth and unbonded to each other,” almost like ball bearings,he said. Strong layers have stronger bonds between crystals,which makes them more stable. When something causes the weak layer,usually less than an inch thick,to give way,the strong layer or layers—there can be dozens,some of them feet thick—go with it. Even skiing at low altitudes can fracture a weak layer and set off an avalanche far above. Contrary to conventional wisdom,sound,unless it is from an explosion,does not set off avalanches.

Data collected by Adams in the cold lab on the microscopic level is added to data gained in work setting off avalanches,and to information from weather conditions and from daily snow samples gathered by the ski patrol at the Yellowstone Club,a private skiing area near Yellowstone Park where he is doing research. Adams’s team plans to combine that data with results from a thermal imaging programme developed with Thermal Analytics,a company based in Houghton,Michigan.
Adams traces his zeal to understand avalanches to his days as a bartender and ski bum at Alta,a ski resort in Utah. “The lodge I was working in got hit by an avalanche,” he said,“and it took a whole wing out and blew cars from the parking lot across the road. It was impressive.”