Loose snow avalanches
Loose snow avalanches occur due to the loss of cohesion of soft, near surface snow. This may occur spontaneously due to warming, insolation (exposure to the sun's energy), or loading by storm snow; or may be triggered by an external disturbance such as a person or animal passing over a slope.
Slab avalanches release when a shear or collapse fracture occurs in an underlying weak layer. That fracture is first triggered, then spreads up, down, or across the slope. External forces such as wind, the weight of snowfall, humans, animals, and vehicles may cause overloading, triggering a fracture in the weak layer. It may also occur spontaneously because of a change in the mechanical properties of the snowpack (such as slab stiffness or density) due to rapid temperature changes or other factors.
The avalanche size classification scheme used in Canada ranks avalanches on a scale of 1 to 5. Size 1 avalanches are relatively harmless to people. Size 2 avalanches are large enough to bury, injure or kill a person. Size 3 avalanches are large enough to destroy a car or small building, or break a few trees. Size 4 avalanches could destroy a railway car, large truck or building, or up to four hectares of forest. The largest avalanches (Size 5) could destroy a village or up to 40 hectares of forest.
While the smallest avalanches (Size 1) travel relatively short distances (ten metres) and have an impact pressure of one kiloPascal (kPa), Size 5 avalanches can travel up to 3000 metres, include large volumes of snow (up to 100 000 m3) and impact with great pressure (100 kPa). Fortunately, the frequency of avalanches decreases as their size increases: size 1 avalanches are very common, and size 5 avalanches occur very rarely.
Avalanche Areas in Canada
Large and small avalanches are very common in the mountains of British Columbia, Alberta and Yukon during the winter. Significant avalanche hazard also exists in Québec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Avalanches are exceedingly rare in the other provinces, although one fatal avalanche did occur in Toronto, Ont.
Professional avalanche forecasters rely on avalanche, snow and weather observations in order to predict or forecast avalanches. Recent avalanches and other signs of unstable snow, as well as heavy precipitation, rising temperatures and strong winds are usually associated with increased avalanche hazard.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) and Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA)
The Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) is the governing association for professional avalanche workers in Canada who are employed by ski hills, backcountry operations, and government and private companies working in avalanche areas. These professionals provide avalanche forecasting and control services tailored for particular locations or activities, using a similar forecasting process as their public counterparts.
Mitigation and Management
Avalanche risk may be mitigated by removing people or property from areas affected by avalanches, or by protecting elements at risk using engineered sheds, walls, berms and deflectors to absorb, dissipate or redirect moving avalanches. Land-use planners and engineers assess the risk to a given location and restrict development or specify mitigation measures to reduce risk to an acceptable level.
Often, active avalanche control is required to protect people and infrastructure that cannot be relocated or otherwise protected. Explosives--including hand-charges, artillery shells, and propane blasts--are applied to unstable slopes by professional avalanche workers in order to bring down smaller, controlled and predictable avalanches. During times of elevated avalanche hazard when passive or active control is not possible, work sites may be evacuated or transportation corridors may be closed to public or industrial traffic.
Accidents and Fatalities
Fatal avalanche accidents occur in Canada each winter: an average of 10-15 people die every year. Historical accidents typically involved workers at industrial sites; notable accidents occurred at Rogers Pass, BC, on 4 March 1910 (62 fatalities), near Britannia Mine, BC, on 22 March 1915 (57 fatalities) and at Granduc Mine, BC, on 18 February 1965 (26 fatalities). However, the victims of recent accidents tend to be recreational backcountry enthusiasts such as skiers or snowmobilers, as was the case in the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia on 20 January and 1 February of 2003 (with seven fatalities each incident). The tragedy at KANGIQSUALUJJUAQ, Qué, on the morning of 1 January 1999, illustrates the danger avalanches pose to communities: nine people (five of them children under the age of eight) were killed when snow smashed into a school where most of the small community were celebrating.
Victims of avalanche typically die of asphyxia or trauma sustained during the avalanche. The likelihood of surviving decreases rapidly after approximately ten minutes of burial. Most persons who knowingly travel in avalanche terrain wear radio-frequency transceivers, which broadcast a signal to allow searchers--using the same device--to locate them if they become buried. Conversely, any person wearing such a beacon can perform a search immediately after an avalanche occurs. This type of rescue is often the avalanche victim's best chance for survival, although people have been recovered alive after long burials by avalanche dog, systematic probing or other means.
Author DAVE GAUTHIER
Cam Campbell, Laura Bakermans, Bruce Jamieson, Chris Stethem, Current and Future Snow Avalanche Threats and Mitigation Measures in Canada (2007); Bruce Jamieson, Pascal Hageli, Dave Gauthier, Avalanche Accidents in Canada, Volume 5, 1996-2007 (2011); David McClung and Peter Schaerer, The Avalanche Handbook (first edition by R.I. Perla, 1976; 3rd edition 2006).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Avalanche Bulletin
The website for the (CSAC) Canadian Avalanche Bulletin.
Canadian Avalanche Centre
The Canadian Avalanche Centre provides public avalanche safety warnings and promotes public avalanche awareness and education.
Major Avalanches in Canada
See a map that depicts the locations of major avalanches that ocurred in Canada since 1900. From the Atlas of Canada.
Know the Risks
This site offers useful tips and guidelines for preparing and responding to earthquakes and other extreme natural events. Click on the "hazards poster" on the right to download a map of Canadian locations prone to various natural events. Includes brief notes about each type of event. From Public Safety Canada.
Top Weather Events of the 20th Century
Check out the top weather events of the 20th Century from Environment Canada.
Ask a Scientist: Words for Snow
A blog post about common and scientific words we use for snow from science.gc.ca.
A Lexicon of Snow
A lengthy list of Innuit and English words that refer to "snow". A University of Calgary website.
Landslides and snow avalanches in Canada
This site pinpoints the types of terrain that are prone to landslides and avalanches. Also describes the hazards such events pose to people and property. From Natural Resources Canada.
Current and Future Snow Avalanche Threats and Mitigation Measures in Canada
See the full text of an academic paper about an extensive survey of snow avalanche hazards and related mitigation measures in Canada. From the University of Calgary.
The Avalanche Site
A comprehensive Canadian online source of information on all aspects of snow avalanche activity. Click on the arrows to read about specific topics and related video clips.
Snow Avalanche Programs
Scroll down the page for information on avalanche monitoring and control programs in British Columbia. From the Government of British Columbia.