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Spring Break Ski Safety Tips: Understanding an Avalanche

It’s spring once again, but nothing can stop you from going on vacation in the snow. However, the danger of getting caught in an avalanche is eminent during this season. So here are some facts you need to know to fully understand an avalanche.

An avalanche or “snowslide” is any amount of snow that slides down the side of a mountain. It can be compared to a landslide, but only with snow instead of dirt. It gains more speed and power as you get closer to the bottom of the slope, making even the smallest snow slides very dangerous.

There are two types of avalanche. The first is known as a surface avalanche. It occurs when a layer of snow with different properties slides over another layer of snow. The second is called a full-depth avalanche, which occurs when an entire layer of snow, from the ground to the surface, slides over the ground.

Why happens? Accumulated snow on the surface cannot support the full weight. When other factors are introduced, such as tremors from a person’s footsteps, the snow loosens and an avalanche occurs. Other factors include major temperature changes, rapid wind speeds, and man-made influences.

Spring conditions may be the time of year for frequent avalanches, but once a regular freeze-thaw cycle is established, its stability is easier to predict compared to the cold winter months.

Freezing at night and melting during the day is a classic spring process. During the freezing phase, the snow cover is stronger. It turns water into ice when the temperature drops below freezing creating a “skeleton” that holds the snow cover together. Then, as the sun rises (warming the east-facing slopes first), the melt phase occurs, melting the skeleton of ice that holds the snowpack together.

Under freeze-melt conditions, snow cover is strongest during the freezing phase and weakest during the melting phase. Between these phases, skiing conditions are moderately safe, as long as people haven’t been in that area too late the day before.

The question now is: How do you avoid getting caught in an avalanche during your ski trip? The most common way to avoid one is to recognize where it is most likely to occur. If you understand when there is a strong chance of an avalanche, you are less likely to experience one. The key is knowing how the path of an avalanche appears. Most of its pathways are obvious, appearing as an open slope, bowl, or ravine shape. Other common signs are bent or damaged trees.

It is imperative to understand the potential hazards you may encounter while on your ski vacation. An avalanche is not a common phenomenon, so you have to be prepared all the time.

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