Dangerous conditions in the backcountry this winter highlight a potential cause that scientists continue to study: the connection between avalanches and the climate crisis.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center counts at least 33 avalanche deaths across the country so far this season. That number eclipses the 23 fatalities for the entire winter the year before – and several years prior.
The link between the climate crisis and avalanches is unclear. Still, snow scientists like Jordy Hendrikx, director of Montana State University’s Snow and Avalanche Lab, say weather events this winter are consistent with climate change models.
Hendrikx explains it this way: Avalanches reflect the weather and when the climate changes, weather becomes more extreme. That includes periods of drought followed by precipitation, a pattern that has repeatedly emerged this winter.
“And when those precipitation events come as snow, then we have the potential for these periods of time with very extreme snow loading resulting in very extreme avalanche conditions,” Hendrikx said.
Hendrikx calls this “the perfect recipe” for massive avalanches as it precipitates a metamorphic process that changes the snowpack. He says that process explains many of the avalanches triggered this year in the Mountain West, from Colorado to Montana and Utah.
The body of research studying the link between the climate crisis and avalanches is growing. Erich Peitzsch, Hendrikx’s former doctoral student and a scientist with the United States Geological Survey, released a study in February that looked at avalanches dating back to the 1600s using tree rings. Peitzsch says this work presented challenges given large-scale avalanches often uproot and destroy trees. But he and his team did manage to paint a picture of avalanche frequency through time in the Northern Rockies.
He will soon release a paper that takes that research a step further by analyzing climate drivers that could have played a role in those avalanches.
The rise in avalanche fatalities could also be connected to another unprecedented moment: the COVID-19 pandemic, Hendrikx said. It has sparked a surge in backcountry use drawing more people to enroll in avalanche courses and subsequently clog popular trailheads to brave a “very, very difficult snowpack.” Hendrikx said other anecdotal factors, such as increased sales of backcountry equipment, also point to the rising interest in off-piste pursuits.
In the coming weeks, Hendrikx is launching a survey to quantify beyond anecdotal evidence the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on backcountry use.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.