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News Release 12-039

Live Chat on Thursday, March 1st: Avalanche! In a No-Snow Winter, Why the Threat is High

And what atmospheric science can tell us about snow, weather and climate

Photo of an avalanche.

Can an avalanche be predicted? Atmospheric scientists are working to find answers.
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February 27, 2012


In this winter seemingly without snow, avalanches have been a frequent occurence.

Too frequent, say National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded atmospheric scientists Jim Steenburgh and Tim Garrett of the University of Utah. So far this winter, there have been some 20 avalanche fatalities in the United States alone.

Steenburgh and Garrett will be on-line this Thursday at 3 p.m. EST to talk about recent avalanches and what they may tell us about this--and other--winter seasons, and how we might learn to live with these extreme natural hazards.

ScienceNOW, the daily news site of the journal Science, will host the live chat.

Put on your ski parka and tune in when these intrepid scientists go behind the scenes at Alta Ski Area in Utah and into the snow clouds--and the snowpack beneath them.

The researchers study lake-effect snowstorms that lead to Utah's famed Greatest Snow on Earth, and are working on the top of Alta to photograph snowflakes.

When snowflake after snowflake after snowflake lands, under certain conditions, they may become an avalanche.

How and why do avalanches happen, and what can they tell us about weather--and climate?

Follow Steenburgh's atmospheric science blog, Wasatch Weather Weenies, to track coming storms.

And join Garrett at Snowflake Showcase, a study plot in the Collins Gulch area of Alta Ski Area where Garrett uses an NSF-funded high-speed camera to automatically photograph snowflakes in free-fall.

By relating snowflake types to local meteorology, Garrett's aim is to improve forecasts of local weather and snowpack. Snowflake size and shape affect snowpack density and are important factors for making accurate weather forecasts.

Today's forecasts rely on snowflake research done painstakingly by hand in the early 1970s. We've come a long way since then.

Find out how far on Thursday.


Jim Steenburgh, atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, lead scientist for NSF-sponsored research on winter storms produced by the Great Salt Lake and Wasatch Mountains.

Tim Garrett, atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah and developer of the NSF-funded Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera, which provides spectacular three-dimensional images of snow crystals during winter storms.

Potential topics

Is Utah snow really the greatest on Earth?

Why does it snow so much (more than 500 inches annually) at Alta, Utah?

How does one deal with avalanche risk in a place where it snows this much?

Where, when and why are people killed by avalanches?

Is this year an unusual one in terms of the number of avalanche accidents?

Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?

What kinds of snowflakes does one see in winter storms, and why would scientists care?

How will this research help weather prediction, avalanche forecasting and avalanche control efforts in the Wasatch Mountains and elsewhere?

How to participate

To participate in the chat, visit the Science chat page on Thursday, March 1, 2012, from 3 to 4 p.m. EST and submit your questions. A transcript of the chat will be archived on the ScienceLIVE Web site.

This chat is part of Science's weekly series on the hottest topics in science; the chats are held every Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734,
Jane Lee, Science/AAAS, (202) 326-6627,

Related Websites
NSF Discovery Article: Dashing Through the Snow, In a One-Truck Radar Dish:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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Photo of pile of snow from avalanche blocking Utah's highway 210 is avalanche.
Most hazardous road in the U.S.? Utah's highway 210 is avalanche central.
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Photo of atmospheric scientist Jim Steenburgh checking out the snow level.
Atmospheric scientist Jim Steenburgh checks out his latest snow forecast.
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Photo of atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett using instruments to study snow.
Tim Garrett, an atmospheric scientist, is using sophisticated technology to study snow.
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Image of a snowflake captured by a camera that records snow as it falls.
Before it melts: snowflake captured by a camera designed to record snow as it falls.
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Radar image of a lake-effect snowband that extends over Alta and environs.
Radar image of a lake-effect snowband that extends over Alta and environs.
Credit and Larger Version