Understand spacial variability when reading avalanche forecasts
I was chatting with an avid snowmachiner from the Kenai the other day and he said, “I look at your reports every time I head out to ride.” That news, of course, made my day. But what followed next gave me pause: “I know the forecast is for Turnagain Pass, but the avalanche conditions can’t be that much different at Lost Lake or the Snug Harbor area, right?”
In this instance the rider was extrapolating the Turnagain Pass avalanche danger to the Lost Lake area, which one can get away with at times, but more often than not avalanche conditions are typically different. If the difference is more dangerous, it’s clearly a problem (this is what gives me pause and motivation for this article).
Spatial variability in avalanche conditions in the Kenai Mountains, not to mention Southcentral in general, can vary widely. The avalanche danger can be moderate in one area and high in another. In short, this is due to considerable differences in both precipitation and temperature in the mountains near the coast to just 10 or 15 miles inland in some cases.
Beginning as a bare-bones operation in the wake of an often-remembered avalanche tragedy in March of 1999 when six snowmachiners lost their lives, the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC) has grown into a Type 1 Center with three fulltime avalanche specialists. Our mission is to increase avalanche awareness through public outreach and avalanche advisories focused in the Turnagain Pass area. With the growth of the Center and with strong community support and crowd sourcing, we are able to gather avalanche information from areas outside Turnagain Pass.
The Southern Kenai (including Snug Harbor, Carter Lake, Lost Lake and all areas south to Seward) has seen high use this season and sadly, one avalanche fatality. This region is one from which we would like more information in order to get the word out. This information comes from you, in the form of observations and photos. The most pertinent observations being any obvious signs of instability encountered while in the mountains (red flags). Here is a quick refresher on Red Flags – signs that a slope is unstable and an avalanche could be triggered:
• Recent avalanches
• Cracks that shoot out from your snowmachine
• “Whumpfing” sounds (sometimes occur when you step off your machine into the snow).
•Changes in weather such as active wind loading, rapid warming, or heavy snow or rainfall
This type of information can give us a giant step forward in warning riders of dangerous avalanche conditions.
To access the CNFAIC website and advisory page, go to CNFAIC.org and click on the “advisories” tab. This forecast is updated at 7 a.m. daily. You can subscribe at the bottom of the advisory page and receive an email each morning. As you can see in the images, we place avalanche information from areas outside the forecast zone in the “Special Announcements.” Always take a look here and know that the forecast is just for the area shaded with the color of the danger rating for that day. If you travel to, or know of, areas that are showing signs of instability, please pass them to us by “submitting an observation” on the “observations” tab.
The CNFAIC also is not the only game in Southcentral – make sure and check alaskasnow.org if you are headed to Hatcher Pass or Valdez. Both these regions have an avalanche forecast as well.
Wendy Wagner, is CNFAIC’s director and an avalanche specialist.