A few highlights from ISSW


14563406_780436598726299_3774009335519985163_nThe International Snow Science Workshop takes place every two years.  It’s a gather of practitioners and scientists where ideas are exchanged and research is presented.  Approximately 25 AAI instructors attended the workshop in Breckenridge, Colorado.  We’re surveying our instructors for their highlights from the week.

When asked what he took away from the workshop, Don Carpenter wrote:

“Highlights for this year’s ISSW were almost all in the realm of human factors and decision-making.  Many were one liners, quotes, nuggets that came from formal presentations or in panel discussions.”

Russell Costa from Westminster College in SLC spoke about the interface of snow and human sciences.  He discussed confirmation bias, a strong tendency for humans to notice things that confirm our gut feel.  This has been documented and discussed in the avalanche world, but his spin on it was powerful.  My real “aha” moment from Costa came when he described the development of expertise.  We often refer to someone as an expert in his or her field.  The avalanche field is a broad field and we need to be aware of the sub categories in which we have actually developed expertise.  For example, a researcher may be an expert in the snow science realm, but be a novice in terms of decision-making in avalanche terrain.

Todd Guyn presented “Common Missteps of Avalanche Practitioners.”  This was focused on mistakes from a large heli-skiing operation, but most of us walked out saying, “I have made all 10 of those mistakes myself.”

Another topic that came up over and over was near misses.  For years we have emphasized near misses as learning opportunities not to be missed in the wicked environment of avalanches.  Dave Hamre had an excellent quote in his panel… “there is a strong connection between near misses and fatalities.”  When he was running CPG he looked hard at near misses and tried to reduce that number.

Todd Guyn talked about measuring success at his heli operation.  He also referred to near misses saying, “we need to capture the smaller events in our data b/c bigger events/accidents are rare…”

I had a great hallway discussion with Scott Savage about what constitutes a near miss.   I came away with these thoughts for a non-event near miss – if the consequences would have been severe or the event caused you to change your decision-making or practices, call it a near miss.

Jake Hutchinson added, “My quick $.02 is Genswein’s model about how much CPR to do with a multi burial situation.  Gives us at least a starting point with some science to back up any recommendations we give.”

Don Sharaf highlighted “One overarching theme of several panels and many presentations was whether we are doing a good job.  Whether you are an avalanche educator, ski patroller, or public forecaster the only easy metric for success is a reduction of avalanche accidents (resulting in injuries or fatalities).  Beyond those hard numbers it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of our efforts.”

The eye openers for me were listening to folks in operations who have been trying to quantify their success by looking at hard data.  An example would be Todd Guyn at CMH who quantifies “notable events”, surprise avalanches, and vertical skied as three “key performance indicators.”  Vertical skied gives a good idea of exposure, while the events and surprises point toward the decision-making and forecasting effectiveness.

Dave Hamre also looked at metrics for measuring effectiveness of highway programs and found that universally all operations could do better with their record keeping.  He was able to draw some conclusions from the data that they did have, including that operations are generally reducing their closure times as they move to more fixed infrastructure (Gas-Ex, Obell-X, Avalanche Guard etc.).  The ability to shoot frequently allowed operations to get snow off the hill, but not on the road.  Whether the road was mid-track or in the run-out zone also had an influence on near misses (and direct hits).

Regarding snowpack and avalanche mechanics, Don continued “There is more discussion of shear being involved with dynamic crack propagation (instead of being purely collapse driven), but thus far we have no new tools for assessing propagation propensity. Ron Simenhois has developed an app for assessing crack face friction, which could give us some enlightenment, but it is still in beta mode for now.  We now have some hard data from Kevin Hammonds about near crust faceting from which I took two main points.  First, the greater temperature gradient that drives faceting is limited to several millimeters around the crust and would not be detectable by the thermometers in our snow kits.  Second, those larger (yet micro-scale gradients) can be present even when the bulk temperature gradient appears to be too small to drive faceting.”

Stay tuned for more updates.




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