Athlete Q&A: Karl Birkeland with National Avalanche Center
October 4, 2016
Ask avalanche guru Karl Birkeland for his thoughts on the wild popularity of backcountry travel these days and he'll point to an unlikely stat: there are none.
True, the Boulder native says, there's no one in the field taking a headcount to see if use has doubled or tripled or quadrupled. It's just no feasible, but his staff at the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Montana keeps tight tabs on the number of avalanche fatalities over the decades, and that stat is even more unlikely: it has stayed flat.
"Let's say that backcountry use has increased eight times in the last 25 years, and that's on the low end I think," Birkeland said a day before arriving in Breckenridge for the International Snow Science Workshop 2016, a global conference for hundreds of ski patrollers, avalanche forecasters and more. "Yet avalanche fatalities over that time period have remained flat in the U.S. Really, that's an incredible accomplishment by the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) and the Forest Service avalanche centers across the country."
Over the past decade (since the 2006-07 season), avalanches have killed between 11 and 36 people annually. Fatalities tend to jump during high-snow seasons like 2011-2012 (34 deaths), but that's not always the case. During the 2014-15 season, fatalities hit a 10-year low of 11 deaths, and conditions then were about average.
It's a testament to better technology and information, Birkeland says, and he should know. For nearly three decades, the University of Colorado-Boulder graduate has been at the forefront of the avalanche safety field, working first as a ski patroller at Eldora Mountain (then known as Lake Eldora) before moving to Montana for his master's degree in earth science from Montana State. There, he helped found the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman before moving to the USFS National Avalanche Center in 2007.
Birkeland has been director of the center since 2012 and now splits time between daily forecasting duties and the scientific research he still loves. That side of the job brought him to Breck for ISSW, where he presented his most recent work with snowpack fractures. Before the conference, the Summit Daily Sports desk talked with Birkeland to hear more about his research, the future of avy forecasting and how duct tape ties it all together — seriously.
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Summit Daily News: ISSW is back in the U.S. for the first time in a decade. What do you like about having the conference stateside?
Karl Birkeland: It's awesome, and it's awesome to be here for another cycle in Breckenridge. I was actually here in '92 for the last ISSW in Breckenridge, and that was a couple of years after I started the avalanche center in Bozeman. Breckenridge is a great place to have it. Between the ski patrol, the ski area and the CAIC, you just know it's going to be top notch.
SDN: You're one of several presenters this week. What's your session focus on?
KB: The session I'm doing is focused on avalanche formation. Those sorts of presentations look a lot at how avalanches are triggered, or how fractures in snowpack propagate. (For) my specific talk, I did some fieldwork looking at how loading affects avalanche release, essentially, in the simplest form. I was doing tests on the snowpack, and then I would actually fly control loads to it by breaking up snow crystals and allowing them to settle on the snowpack. Then I would do more tests to look at how adding that load changed conditions in the snowpack, and how that affects avalanche. I used cardboard and duct tape — highly scientific (laughs).
SDN: You've been an avalanche forecaster for nearly three decades. How have you seen the avy safety field grow in that time?
KB: It's grown as we've seen growth in backcountry use. I'm not sure how many people were at the conference in '92, but I'm sure there are twice as many people this year. It's hard to get your abstract accepted for talks now, and this field still has a lot for us to know and understand. We've come to know and understand a lot more, but there's always work to be done.
SDN: I talked with Ethan Greene from CAIC about the increase in backcountry travel over the past decade or so. How has this impacted your job with the National Avalanche Center?
KB: Snow and avalanches are a really complex system, and, compared to a lot of other things we've studied — the atmosphere and weather forecasting — there are a lot less people looking at this for a shorter period of time, with a lot less money. There is still a lot of good research to be done and a lot to learn, and that's why the ISSW is great. It's this merging of theory and practice, and it's unique in the scientific world that this conference brings together not only scientists, but your practitioners: the ski patrollers, the forecasters, the ski guides, and everyone learns from each other by sharing experience. You glean from those experiences information you need that is applicable to what you're doing.
SDN: Greene also talked about the role of the Internet and social media. Basically, he said more info about snow and avy conditions can be a benefit and a detriment — it's tough to pick through the white noise. Do you agree?
KB: Well, there are two ways to look at that. There's the white noise component, but there's also the additional information that social media provides. The best way for people to sort through the white noise is to go to the local avalanche center. Here, in Colorado, the CAIC will have already sorted through the white noise and they'll be providing you with the essential information — the most important observations you need to stay safe.
I think one of the things the avalanche centers are thinking is that social media has been a great platform. It's a way to share safety information with the public, and share it quickly. Again, with social media, you'll find that an avalanche center will put out a warning, and before, it went to the newspapers. It took time. Now, you have that warning, and everyone who sees it is sharing it on Facebook and re-Tweeting it, and anyone who is tied to the filed — to the people in the backcountry — have access to it on demand.
SDN: What's the most pressing concern for avalanche and snow safety professionals this season?
KB: Let's see (pause). It's hard. As we get more and more people in the backcountry, they are going to spread into more and more places. The challenge for the avalanche forecasting community is that we need more people to provide better forecasts for these nooks and crannies, if that makes sense. As your favorite backcountry area gets packed, you'll say, "I'm going to hike a little further to the next drainage," or "I'm going to go over that new range." It's the same thing we've faced for the past 25 year, is just keeping up with the increased use.
You've seen new avalanche centers pop up across the country to meet the use. You've probably seen this in Colorado — there used to only be three forecasts zones for Colorado and now you have 10 or 11 or something. You have way more employees and they're all working together to provide more information on all these areas, and that's our challenge: is to provide good information for all the places people want to go.
SDN: I know it's tough to par avy safety down to one or two tips, but if you had to, what advice would you give to anyone heading into the backcountry?
KB: It's sort of cliché in the avalanche group, but it comes down to "know before you go." You want to know what the avalanche conditions are, which means calling your local center. You also want to make sure you're going out with rescue gear, and you want to make sure you're paying attention when you head out. There's a fantastic tutorial — about 10 to 15 minutes, with a lot of loud music and people jumping off cliffs — at the website Know Before You Go (www.kbyg.org).
For me personally, I think Ethan and the entire CAIC team are doing a spectacular job here. They're bringing new tools into the forecasting and finding news ways to forecast for large areas, so hats off to them.
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