Avalanche pro tames mountains of data
The Denver Post
COPPER MOUNTAIN ” A late-season storm was still spitting its last few flakes on a chilly morning and Dan Moroz was thinking about avalanches.
“You start by looking around. There are all sorts of clues,” the Copper Mountain ski patrolman said, riding a chair lift before the slopes opened.
Fresh puffs of powder piled on the tree branches meant there was little wind overnight. Frost clinging to the lift towers indicated that a potential weak layer of rime had formed on the snow surface. A sheaf of snow slid off the roof of ski-patrol headquarters ” a small-scale avalanche.
While noting those signs in nature, it is inside the building where Moroz begins his “serious” avalanche work.
Here, a couple of computer terminals display the overnight weather data ” snowfall, wind, temperature ” and a unique, ever-evolving photo database of the resort’s avalanche-prone slopes that Moroz devised and could revolutionize the way slide paths are monitored.
“In the past, here’s what we’ve done with all of our records,” he said, pulling out a filing cabinet stuffed with thick manila folders, each representing a different winter. “We had a Xeroxed piece of paper marked with the names of the paths that we were working and the kind of control work we were doing. We would have just endless pieces of paper.
“Now how would I get a feel for everything that’s going on during the course of a year? I would have to look at every single piece of paper and do the number-crunching up in my head.”
Now, using simple photo software, Moroz draws in every bit of avalanche-control work ” blue lines indicating where ski patrol has made ski cuts, red notations for explosives and yellow screens outlining the paths of any avalanches they knock down ” and then compares different days throughout the season by layering them like transparencies in an overhead projector.
“It’s like a book. Every day is a new chapter,” he said. “I can pull up every date of activity and start bringing out all of the control work that’s been done over the course of a year, and I can start to see trends.”
Linked to the weather database, the program gives Copper Mountain perhaps the most sophisticated and vigilant monitor of any avalanche slopes in the world.
And the system is gathering rave reviews. Moroz has been to Alaska and New Zealand recently for presentations to avalanche experts.
“It’s a great little idea,” said Dale Atkins of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which is considering similar technology for its network of backcountry observers to use on laptop computers or hand-held devices. “It’s actually kind of elegantly simple, which I think makes it even a better tool.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation may consider the technology for monitoring the hundreds of avalanche paths that cross state highways, said Ray Mumford, avalanche coordinator for the agency’s region covering Summit, Grand and Clear Creek counties.
Although avalanches inside ski resorts are extremely rare, in great part because the snow is heavily compacted by skiers, control work has gained importance as resorts open ever-steeper terrain.
And knowing what’s going on in the snowpack is critically important to the patrollers who blast avalanche paths with explosives, break the cornices and test the slopes before the public is allowed out.
Patroller Mickey Johnston of Copper Mountain died during control work in Graveline Gulch in 1983, and three members of the Aspen Highlands patrol were buried and killed later that winter.
“We try to learn from experience,” Moroz said. “I’m not going to be here forever. And I have 30 years of trends in my brain. So the question is, how can we leave a digital record that’s going to be here in 100 years? That’s why I put this together.”
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