The Only Avalanche I Want To See Coming At Me

The Only Avalanche I Want To See Coming At Me

While we’ve come up with ingenious methods of escaping avalanches, science still isn’t well-versed in their inner mechanics. A Montana State University researcher is trying to change that by setting off his own mini-avalanches — just, you know, indoors.

Engineering professor Ed Adams performs his research out of the Subzero Science and Engineering Research Facility at MSU. The 250m² lab has been in operation since 2008, making it one of the most state-of-the art facilities of its kind.



Adams is researching the effects of radiation recrystallisation when deeper snow get warmer than the powder on top and creates instability in the snow pack. For his experiments, Adams “grows” snow in specialised, -20°C cold rooms that house small 18°C pools of water. He blows air over the water, channeling the vapour up a chimney, and through an array of strings that collect and crystallise the vapor.

The ice crystals are then harvested and transported to an environmental chamber — one with a refrigerated ceiling that mimics natural snow fall. Why? Because “Once snow gets on the ground, it’s in an ongoing state of change,” Adams told Popular Science.

To mimic the radiation recrystallisation, he warms the snow with lamps, then slices it in half lengthwise, sets marker spots that can be followed by a modelling program. He’ll then add greater and greater loads until the snowpack cracks.

This may seem like a strange way to learn about hurricanes but it certainly beats Adams’ previous method. He used to tie a reinforced shed to a boulder on the side of a mountain, then set off explosives on the hill above, causing an avalanche and burying the cabin.

Editor’s note: The PopSci link below will redirect to the Australian site, which doesn’t host the article. You’ll have to crack out the proxy for this one.


Image: Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock