News » Mountain News

Mountain News: Why no increase in avalanche deaths?


BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — If you take the long view of avalanche deaths in Colorado and other Western states, something curious has happened in the last 22 years. The number of fatalities has levelled off, to about 27 per year.

Yes, the number of fatalities in the U.S. fluctuates dramatically from year to year, reaching 36 on two different years recently, but dipping to 11 last winter. Usually, but not always, the number of fatalities spikes in years of plentiful snow.

But here's what Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont., thinks is notable. The use of the backcountry has increased at least eight-fold in the last 20 years and probably much more. "It is challenging to get good, solid numbers on dispersed winter recreation," Birkeland noted in a recent posting on his agency's website.

People taking advantage of avalanche advisories suggest a dramatic increase in backcountry travel. The Utah Avalanche Center, for example, has reported a 12-fold increase in avalanche advisory use during the past 22 seasons. Use of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's advisories grew 17-fold, and the Northwest Avalanche Center 60-fold.

If some of this increase can be attributed to smartphones and other ease with which people can tap into the Internet, it "still indicates many more people are going into the country," said Birkeland.

In other words, lots more people are going into the backcountry during winter, whether on snowshoes, skis, or snowmobiles. But the fatality rate is not rising.

That, said Birkeland at an international meeting of avalanche forecasters in Breckenridge last week, is a triumph. Speaking with the Summit Daily News, he credited the flat-lining fatalities to a wide variety of avalanche professionals, including ski patrollers, guides, educators and, especially, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Forest Service avalanche centres across the country.

Those centres have stepped-up their forecasting work. Colorado, for example, used to have three avalanche forecast zones. Now, it forecasts for 10 different zones across the state.

The challenge to forecasters Birkeland sees is that as more people head to the backcountry, they fan out into more and more places. "We need more avalanche forecasters to provide better forecasts for these nooks and crannies," he said.

Taking a much longer view, going back to the gold-rush era of the 1860s, Colorado had a huge number of avalanche deaths in the 1880s and early into the 20th century, as men — and they were mostly men — swarmed the hills in all months to muck gold and silver.

After the mining boom subsided, so did the number of avalanche deaths. They grew again in the latter half of the 20th century, though, first with the cross-country skiing boom of the 1970s and then in the early 1990s with the advent of powerful, light-weight snowmobiles.

Global warming may cause moose to freeze

JACKSON, Wyo. — Global warming might cause moose to freeze to death in Yellowstone National Park.

As explained in Headwaters, a special environmental supplement to the Jackson Hole News&Guide, moose populations in Jackson Hole have declined significantly in recent years, as they have across the northern United States. The reason for the decline is complicated. Wolves have taken moose, and grizzly bears have been expanding their presence.

But climate could be the biggest challenge. Part of the problem is ticks. A moose with too many of the parasites during the winter can lose its hair and freeze to death.

"Winter ticks are exacerbated by shorter winters and earlier springs," Alyson Courtemanch, a wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Fish & Game Department, explained. "Deep freezes can kill the ticks or knock back the tick populations."

On the other hand, warm springs allow ticks to drop off onto dirt instead of snow. There, the ticks stand a better chance of laying eggs and reproducing. This year had a warm spring, and next winter more moose will have ticks.

In general, moose are simply better adapted to colder temperatures. When it's too warm, they spend more time in the shade trying to cool down and less time feeding, Courtemanch said.

"The warmer winters and warmer summers are incredibly stressful to them," she said. "They're so heat-stressed all the time. It cascades into poor body condition for females, and that impacts their ability to have a calf. They are so stressed they can't put on enough weight every year."

Charismatic microfauna threatened by warming

WEST GLACIER, Mont. — Maybe you've heard of charismatic megafauna? That's the phrase sometimes used to describe wolves, grizzly bears, and even wolverines.

How about charismatic microfauna? That's how aquatic entomologist Joe Giersch, somewhat tongue in cheek, describes two species of stoneflies that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week proposed adding to the federal government's list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Giersch told the Flathead Beacon that the stoneflies are endangered by warming temperatures in their ecological niche in high-alpine melt-water streams in Glacier National Park. In other words, he said, they are the poster-bugs of global warming.

Clint Muhlfeld, a research ecologist at the USGS Northern Rockies Science Center in Glacier Park, said the proposed listing of the stoneflies as threatened is significant, and could mark the beginning of a cascade of species being listed with climate change as the significant threat.

"These species are the only other species that I'm aware of that may be listed under the ESA due to climate-change impacts, other than the polar bear," he said. "They are the polar bears of Glacier National Park."

"Also, more importantly, there will be winners and some losers as impending climate change and glacier loss unfolds," he continued. "But these species are indicative of an entire ecosystem under threat due to climate warming."

The sun explains only small part of warming

DURANGO, Colo. — There's disagreement about what is causing temperatures to warm globally. Some have said it's because of the sun. Gary Rottman, writing in the Durango Herald, said they're wrong. "I can tell you categorically that is not true," he wrote.

Rottman explained that he capped his 35-year career at the University of Colorado-Boulder with a participation in a study of solar radiation by satellite. The monitoring continues.

"Google it if you like. The best minds studying the solar/terrestrial connection believe no more than 15 per cent of global warming is attributable to the sun," he said.

Rottman also noted that 15 of the 16 hottest years ever recorded occurred since 2000, and this year is set to break all records.

In Montana, a Brit who has made a name for himself as what many call a climate science denier had a crowd of 130 at an event in Kalispell.

"You don't have to worry about the cuddly polar bear. They are going to be just fine," Christopher Monckton said to laughter and applause, according to a report in the Flathead Beacon. He went on to say that global warming "will not affect us for the next 2,000 years, and if it does, it won't have been caused by us. And I therefore declare the climate scare officially over."

County shows interest in break for coal mine

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Like most coal companies, Peabody Energy has been having troubles because of lower-priced natural gas, plunging prices of renewables, and increased enforcement of laws to protect air quality. In April, Peabody had to dive into bankruptcy protection.

That's a concern in Routt County. Despite the two ski areas in Steamboat, Peabody's Twentymile Mine is the biggest taxpayer and has the largest single payroll in Routt County.

Recently, the county treasurer, Brita Horn, met with Peabody officials to talk terms about Peabody's payment of US$1.8 million in overdue taxes. Horn reads the law to say that Peabody has to pay interest on the overdue taxes.

But Routt County commissioners pushed back when told of the county treasurer's plans, reported the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Cari Hermacinski, a former Steamboat Springs council president and now a county commissioner, pointed out that the monthly interest is $18,000. She wants the coal mine relieved of having to pay interest on its delinquent taxes. Other commissioners seemed to agree.

Why not a buffalo mountain in Banff?

BANFF, Alberta — A proposal is afoot to give Tunnel Mountain in Banff National Park a new name: Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain. The Rocky Mountain Outlook supported the change.

There's no tunnel in the mountain, and it wasn't named after a family named Tunnel. So why not rename the mountain, said the paper. It would be a nod to indigenous peoples, but also in accord with the reintroduction of bison to Banff National Park next year.

Add a comment