2 Factors May Explain Spike in Avalanche Deaths

A weak snowpack, combined with more people outdoors in the pandemic
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 8, 2021 10:55 AM CST
Updated Feb 8, 2021 11:23 AM CST
US Sees Most Avalanche Deaths in a Century
Search and rescue crews respond to the top of Millcreek Canyon, where four skiers died in an avalanche Saturday near Salt Lake City.   (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

If it seems like you've been reading about avalanches more than usual lately, you're not wrong. The US has recorded 15 fatalities in the last week, the most in a seven-day span since 1910, reports BuzzFeed. The number so far this winter is 21, two shy of last year's total for the entire season, per CBS News. Coverage:

  • All over: The recent stats include deadly snow collapses in Utah and Colorado, as well in Montana, California, New Hampshire, and Alaska.
  • 2 factors: A specialist with the National Avalanche Center tells BuzzFeed that two factors appear to be at play: One is that the pandemic has led to an increase in people getting outside to hike, ski, snowboard, or ride snowmobiles. The other involves a "weak snowpack," says Simon Trautman.

  • More on that: "The accidents are geographically wide-ranging and are indicative of a widespread weak snowpack across the US," says Trautman. "Much of the western US saw very little early season snow, and recent snowstorms are overloading this older, weaker snow and leading to elevated avalanche danger."
  • No match: The four people killed in Utah's backcountry Saturday were experienced skiers in their 20s and 30s who had the proper safety equipment, including beacons and shovels, per the Salt Lake Tribune. Four others in their group suffered injuries. It's "like being in a car accident—it happens really quickly and it's really violent," Toby Weed of the Utah Avalanche Center tells Utah's FOX 13. "Nobody wants to get caught, much less buried, in an avalanche. It's a horrible thing to live through and to die doing."
  • Another factor: Karl Birkeland of the US Forest Service tells CBS that climate change is playing a role in all this by making avalanches harder to predict. "In an area, say, for example, where we tend to always see dry-snow avalanches, we might see more wet-snow avalanches," he says. "This really creates challenges for avalanche forecasters."
(More avalanche stories.)

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