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SFU avalanche expert uses GPS to make winter backcountry travel safer in Western Canada

February 05, 2018
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A new study led by Simon Fraser University avalanche expert Pascal Haegeli strives to make the mountains safer for backcountry enthusiasts. His research team equips commercial backcountry guides in Western Canada with GPS devices to better understand how to manage the risk of avalanches when travelling in the backcountry.

Snow avalanches are the deadliest natural hazard in Canada, killing an average of 13 people every year. Most of these fatalities occur in British Columbia and Alberta and involve backcountry recreationists; however, avalanches also threaten utility lines, resource operations and cause traffic hazard and economic loss by blocking highways and railways.

“Over the last few years, the popularity of winter backcountry sports has grown dramatically in Canada,” says Haegeli, SFU’s Industrial Research Chair in Avalanche Risk Management. “While commercial backcountry guides have a lot of expertise when it comes to safety and preventing avalanche incidents, avalanche safety research has so far not looked at this knowledge systematically.”

The study aims to capture the operational knowledge of experienced backcountry guides, and develop tools that preserve and use this knowledge as well as help train future guides. Eventually, this research will also provide the foundation for developing decision aids for private recreationalists.

Haegeli began his new role as SFU’s Industrial Research Chair in Avalanche Risk Management in the fall of 2017. The position – currently the only one supporting a research program of this kind in Canada - was established through a collaboration between SFU, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and a consortium of industry partners from the avalanche community. Partners include Canadian Pacific, HeliCat Canada, the Canadian Avalanche Association and Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. The chair is supported by $1.27 million in funding to pursue applied avalanche safety research until 2022.

“This Chair will build on the success of previous Industrial Research Chairs focused on advancing avalanche science and continue the strong partnerships that have significantly impacted this field in Canada,” says Marc Fortin, Vice-President, Research Partnerships, NSERC. “NSERC is proud to provide such a platform for strong R&D collaborations and dynamic interchange between academia and industry.”

 Haegeli says the NSERC funding is crucial for ensuring the future of avalanche research in Canada. As chair, he will continue to work closely with industry partners in the avalanche community to conduct interdisciplinary research, and develop practical tools to make risk management more efficient, while increasing safety.

Haegeli’s research program is further supported by Avalanche Canada and Avalanche Canada Foundation. Both focus on public avalanche safety and converting what we learn from the professional avalanche safety community into products for the recreational winter backcountry community.

Fast Facts:

  • According to Avalanche Canada, snow avalanches are the deadliest natural hazard in Canada, killing an average of 13 people every year.
  • Delays to vital transportation routes due to avalanche incidents in western Canada are estimated to result in losses of CAD$7.5M per year. Economic loss for downstream operations is estimated to exceed CAD$100M per year.
  • Over the last few years, the popularity of winter backcountry sports has grown dramatically in Canada.
  • The NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Avalanche Risk Management aims to capture guiding expertise and combine it with existing scientific understanding of avalanches in a variety of ways to improve avalanche safety.
  • Haegeli’s team is working with a number of mechanized skiing operations including those in Whistler, Revelstoke and Terrace.
  • Researchers have already collected GPS tracks of more than 30,000 ski runs on 4,300 individual guiding days, under a wide variety of hazard conditions.

Learn More:

SFU News: Pascal Haegeli to hold Industrial Research Chair in Avalanche Risk Management

Contact:
Pascal Haegeli, School for Resource and Environmental management, 778.782.3579, pascal_haegeli@sfu.ca
Justin Wong, University Communications, 778.782.3035/778.782.5151, jrwong@sfu.ca