Experts look to trees, technology to put March’s avalanche cycle into historic, future context
BRECKENRIDGE – At the end of his Colorado Snow & Avalanche Workshop presentation, dubbed “Big Avalanches of March 2019: Release, Motion and Destructive Effects,” Art Mears was asked about if March’s larger slide paths will affect future slides.
In response, the avalanche consultant quoted a legendary New York Yankees baseball player: Yogi Berra.
“‘Predictions are very difficult,’” Mears said, “’especially about the future.’”
Despite the difficulties, on Friday at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge Mears, Colorado Avalanche Information Center Deputy Director Brian Lazar, Dr. Kelly Elder of the U.S. Forest Service and others shared their best knowledge on the future of avalanches here in Colorado in the wake of the historic March cycle.
Elder, a research hydrologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, compared dialing in the details of the March cycle to baking a cake. If one thing in the recipe changes, something different happens.
“So we are really trying to pick this apart from a scientific standpoint,” Elder said.
“We all have our own paradigms as to how these avalanches work, “ Elder continued, “and the way we behave in avalanche terrain and country. This kind of event resets those paradigms for anybody who’s paying attention. If this event doesn’t reset your own idea of possibilities of what can happen in avalanche zones, then you should stay the hell out of the terrain.”
On Friday Elder gave an overview of the Colorado Big Avalanche Project. It’s a collaborative research project on the March cycle that the CAIC and other agencies hope will impact avalanche forecasting operations. The CAIC and partners hope the project will, in turn, impact land use and planning for communities in avalanche terrain.
In the wake of the cycle, Elder said one of the first things that jumped out to him was during a tour of the slide paths in Tenmile Canyon was why some of them slid and some didn’t. To get to the bottom of questions like that, Elder and the team he’s working with are collecting quantifiable data and more soft-science classification characteristics to learn more about the March cycle.
The work centers in a lot of ways around dendrochronology — the scientific method of analyzing tree samples to learn more about historical atmospheric conditions. Elder said these samples include full trunk-sized discs of uprooted trees collected from slide paths and core samples from stumps still standing in debris fields.
Elder said scars in the samples will help the project to learn more about the history of disturbance events in the paths. It may even provide information dating back centuries, long before westward settlers moved into the area and recorded history. Elder said there are even some samples collected near Silverton of trees over 300 years old.
Elder said there is a challenge in relying on the tree sample data because, in many cases, the trees in the slide paths are more like shrapnel, snapped by slides and carried downhill. As such, Elder said the project is also relying on GPS and other more modern technologies to complement what the samples say.
Elder further put into perspective just how destructive March’s cycle was by comparing it to the recent beetle kill invasive species epidemic that has killed many trees in the area.
“Walking through a lot of this debris, there is not a lot of beetle kill in it,” Elder said. “This has taken out a lot of healthy timber. …The change (to the landscape) from this, I think, might be bigger than the beetle kill change.”
Elder also said it’s too early to chalk March’s cycle up to climate change.
“Everybody loves to jump on climate change for all of these things,” he said, “but, in my mind, this is a weather event and we need to look at the long-term data to look at this in a climate context.”
Another of Friday’s speakers, Drew Petersen, spoke of the community effects of major avalanche cycles. Pointing to the case study of Lake City in Hinsdale County — a town essentially shut down by March’s cycle — the regional field manager Petersen said this summer’s weather was a best case scenario. That’s because in a more regular heavy monsoon season, Petersen said flash flooding and mudslide events likely would have proven more damaging to Lake City and other localities where snow slides sheered the earth below it.
Petersen also organized more than 70 agencies to come together to conduct mitigation work in Lake City after the cycle. Without it, Petersen said he thinks summer flooding would have occurred.
Petersen said mitigation work after cycles is often tricky because much land in and around these slides is public. As a result, funding and immediacy of mitigation installations — such as walls and mounds — typically involve a timely process.
For communities like Lake City, and others like it across the state, that presents a quandary, as March made us all realize we need to expect the unexpected.
“You had a community that was fine,” Petersen said, “and suddenly an avalanche path above them just became evidence. And now they are living with, ‘is this avalanche path, the next time it runs, going to blast through these trees — there aren’t that many left any more — and actually hit my house?”
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