At state avalanche workshop, Canadian professor shares data on how people use backcountry forecasts |

At state avalanche workshop, Canadian professor shares data on how people use backcountry forecasts

An instructor with Colorado Adventure Guides leads an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education class.
Photo from Abe Pacharz

DILLON — At this week’s virtual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, a Canadian professor shared his latest information regarding avalanche risk communication with the Colorado backcountry recreation and avalanche education community.

Pascal Haegeli, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, said over recent winters he and his university students worked on studies regarding how recreators use, understand and apply avalanche forecast information — specifically how people perceive danger scales. He said one of the study’s primary goals was to examine whether recreators have the skills at the levels they say they do, including proper perception and use of avalanche danger scales.

Haegeli first shared information gleaned from a study conducted by his student, Abby Morgan, who observed data collected from a small, well-observed area around Davos, Switzerland.

The group’s study used data to indicate there’s an exponential growth in avalanche risk and snow slide danger as conditions increase on avalanche danger scales. The study showed that once avalanche danger reached the high and extreme levels on the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale, avalanche activity increased exponentially.

Despite that fact, Haegeli said for each of the five danger rating levels, roughly half of the study’s participants viewed the danger along a more linear scale, with even distribution of avalanches throughout danger levels, compared to the exponential increase at higher and extreme danger levels that shown by the study’s data.

Roughly half of participants viewed the danger scale as a linear scale with evenly-spaced, non-overlapping, ranges.

Haegeli said the study consisted of 2,705 assessments from participants. He said only 6% of study participants drew a concave shape of exponential growth at danger levels 5 and 6 similar to chart, compared to 20% drawing more of a convex linear model.

“To better understand what drives these perceptions, we examined the characteristics of participants who ended up in different groups,” Haegeli said.

Haegeli said the number of days of backcountry travel per year and engagement were the most important driving factors in how recreators perceived risks, but did not define the people who correctly understood avalanche probabilities.

“Interestingly, the people who correctly drew the linear scale as concave did not exhibit a specific user profile,” Haegli said.

“They weren’t more trained, engaged or experienced — or anything else,” he added. “They were a rather random group.”

Further into his study’s findings, Haegeli said 91% of participants stayed at home based on extreme ratings alone, while 62% stayed at home at high and extreme ratings.

Haegeli then shared takeaways from student Katie Fisher’s research, which was focused on how presentation types affect people’s ability to use avalanche information in a meaningful way.

For the research, American and Canadian report models were analyzed and compared to a new presentation format which displayed information for all avalanche hazards in a similar graphic.

To test the models, Haegeli said participants were presented with the three different types of avalanche reports showing various avalanche hazard scenarios. A hypothetical mapping landscape had three different route options on it, and participants ranked the options according to their exposure to specific avalanche problems.

The study gathered 1,300 route assessments, and Haegeli said data showed the chance of completing the study’s tasks correctly were eight percentage points higher for participants presented with the American style of graphic.

“So we have a clear winner in this category,” Haegeli said. “With respect to completion time, the participants presented with the American and new graphic were roughly 10 seconds faster than if given the Canadian graphic.”

Haegeli added the studies found that both Americans and Canadians prefer their own graphics.

“Overall participants like the American the best,” Haegeli  said, “but it was lower among others who use other graphics.”

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