As an avalanche forecaster, you play a critical role in protecting the public and raising avalanche awareness. You combine skills in mountaineering with knowledge of mountain conditions, weather, and snow science to evaluate the risk of avalanches in a given area. Avalanche forecasters are generally busy through fall, winter, and spring months monitoring snowpacks and collecting data in order to predict avalanche occurrences and keep visitors safe.
Imagine you are standing in bright sunshine, clear blue sky above you, and pristine white snow all around. You are an avalanche forecaster on a routine check deep in the heart of the Rockies. You hear a faint rumble growing steadily louder, so you grab your binoculars and scan the area for the source. On a neighbouring slope, you spot a large mass of snow racing down the mountainside, gaining momentum and gathering rocks and trees as it crashes down the incline. From your safe vantage point, this is a spectacular sight, and it's all in a day's work.
As an avalanche forecaster for a large ski resort, you begin your days very early in the morning, long before skiers hit the slopes. You arrive at the hill's offices and start checking online the latest satellite images and meteorological reports for the area. You also gather any other avalanche reports and observations before you and the patrol team head up the hill. You will snowmobile to a number of locations throughout the resort to gather information on the weather, snow, and avalanche conditions, and evaluate factors such as new snowfall, wind, temperature, and the stability of the snowpack in order to assess the risk of avalanche. You look for signs of unstable snow. In some places, you dig holes to take snow profiles: the vertical walls of these holes are where you can measure snow layers and look for any potential failure planes, where weak layers are sandwiched between stronger ones.
There are also a number of stability tests you perform when necessary to gather information on the snowpack. Once you've gathered all the observations and data you need, you return to the office to prepare your forecast, brief staff and prepare the required avalanche control operations, including using explosives to trigger avalanches in controlled areas. Once control operations are complete, you update the resort's reports and website and start letting skiers onto the hill.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an avalanche forecaster:
Avalanche forecasters work in a variety of locations including but not limited to:
In the office:
In the field:
There are a number of places avalanche forecasters can find employment. They include:
If you are a high school student considering a career as an avalanche forecaster, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an avalanche forecaster is a college technical diploma. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an avalanche forecaster, the following programs are most applicable:
In addition to formal education, most avalanche forecasters have strong mountaineering skills and experience travelling and guiding in backcountry areas. Certification is not mandatory for avalanche forecasters, though many employers require completion of Levels 1 and 2 operations courses through the Canadian Avalanche Association (http://www.avalanche.ca), as well as professional membership in the CAA or the American Avalanche Association.
“It’s a very inexact science,” says avalanche forecaster Alan Jones, ”you have to draw upon a lot of different facets of your knowledge and experience to get the job done.” The engineering graduate began his career in environmental consulting, performing geological and environmental engineering in the field. It wasn’t until one winter when he worked as an avalanche technician that he realized his engineering skills could be used elsewhere. “I had done a lot of mapping of landslide hazards, and so it was just kind of natural to also do the same for avalanches. It’s a different material, but they have similar mechanics.”
Shortly after, Alan returned to school and completed a master’s in civil engineering with a focus on avalanche mechanics. “I like the combined field knowledge that you gain by observing avalanches and being in the field and there’s a real science behind it.” Alan’s job is different than that of a local avalanche forecaster. As a regional avalanche forecaster, he spends half his time during the winter season at his desk. A local forecaster working, for example, at a ski hill “might perform snowpack tests or conduct some explosive avalanche control to assess the snow stability. They can drive anywhere to their forecast area in a day.”
Alan’s regions maybe 100 times as large as a ski hill forecast area, meaning that instead of being able to collect meteorological data first-hand, he must rely heavily on weather and snowpack data sent to him by a network of observers, usually via computer. Alan sorts through it and provides the public with the appropriate warnings based on this information. Alan enjoys using the array of skills and knowledge necessary to perform his job, including a solid understanding of meteorology and snow science. “An avalanche forecaster also needs good communication skills, because we do a lot of writing and speaking to the media.” Sometimes he must also be part psychic. “Part of our job is to foresee when people will be out in the mountains and when accidents are most likely to occur.”
When Alan is able to step away from his desk, it’s usually to examine avalanche dangers in different mountain ranges, teach avalanche safety, or give public presentations. “It’s really a great combination of indoor and outdoor activities.” One of the drawbacks of his job is that the work is seasonal. “I’d say 90 percent of avalanche forecasters do some other kind of work during the summertime.” Alan himself works as an avalanche engineering consultant and part-time researcher in the summer. Alan says he’s also tired of the public misconception that all avalanche forecasters are inherent risk-takers without any real care about the dangerous nature of their job. “There’s this misconception that if you choose to go out into the mountains, you are taking undue risks…avalanches are unknown to a lot of people and there’s this perception that it’s risky.” But, he adds, “with knowledge and skill you can manage those risks and travel safely in the mountains”—something he says avalanche forecasters do well.