Technical information, news, research, and opinion on avalanches, snow safety, and winter backcountry travel.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Forecasting 101

if I knew then, what I know now—from the vernacular

There are lots of options for improving your avalanche forecasting skills, but what happens after you've taken an avalanche safety training course? The idea is to get out and gain experience, but the relationship between experience and skill is tenuous. Yes, you need to get out and ski tour, but you also need to focus on increasing your skill, so that all your hard-earned experience doesn't go to waste.

I get a few emails each month in which people ask me how to break past a learning plateau, and my answer is, increasingly, to engage in some self-directed study. Of course, the question then becomes what should I study?

When I think about all things I've learned about avalanches, several things really stick out as useful. Snow metamorphism is one of the most useful topical areas, and of course, learning the best practises of risk management is also really useful. You should also study avalanche formation because the information you learn is incredibly useful when interpreting snowpack test results. Of course, all this leads in the general direction of improving your backcountry avalanche forecasting skills, and there is one resource that is utterly peerless in this regard.

Chapter six of The Avalanche Handbook lays out a theoretical framework for avalanche forecasting that I've found very useful. The elements of applied avalanche forecasting are as follows:
  • Definition. Forecast snowpack instability across space and time.
  • Goal. Align your perception of instability with reality.
  • Information Types & Relation To Perception. The relationship between instability and Class III, II, and I factors.
  • Scales in Space and Time. Considering avalanche forecasting in terms of spatial and temporal parameters.
  • Human Factors and Perception. Managing your state of mind and remaining objective.
  • Reasoning Processes. Learn how to apply inductive and deductive reasoning to the problem.
  • Decision-Making. How to manage risk.
When I first read this chapter, my mind certainly did a few backflips and double-takes. How do you take something this complex and apply it in the real-world? After a few more reads, and after some directed study of the material, including extensive Q & A, I finally was able to wrap my brain around the concepts.

I'm prepared to make a fairly steep claim in this post, and it is as follows: there is no better way to learn how to forecast avalanches than to study the material in this chapter until you know it forwards and backwards. Naturally, I've prepared an exam that you can use to gauge your progression.

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