Expert zeros in on snow -- B.C.'s natural killer

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

As a mountaineer and backcountry skier, Prof. David McClung knows that his knowledge of avalanches can mean the difference between life and death.

Now new funding for his research on avalanche prediction and prevention means his knowledge will be more widely shared with the B.C. industries most affected by avalanches.

McClung has been named NSERC-FRBC-CMH Chair in Snow and Avalanche Science. The chair is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Forest Renewal BC (FRBC) and Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) Inc., the world's largest heli-skiing operator.

The chair will form the basis of a permanent research group, unique among Canadian universities, that will solve critical problems facing industries affected by avalanches and train geoscientists and engineers in avalanche science.

"This chair will allow me to focus my energy on research, provide significant technolgy transfer to industry and advanced training for professional avalanche workers," McClung said.

A professor of Geography and an associate member of Civil Engineering, McClung has led UBC's Avalanche Research Group since 1991. His research has focused on snow mechanics, avalanche dynamics, land use planning, avalanche prediction and the forces put on structures in deep snow cover.

McClung is also author of the Avalanche Handbook, a technical but accessible guide used in training schools and universities across North America.

Personal experience has added to his vast knowledge of the topic. In the past 30 years he has climbed nearly 200 peaks and routes in the Pacific Northwest and taken part in six major expeditions to the Himalayas, the Andes and Alaska.

Due to its mountainous terrain, 80 per cent of Canada's avalanches are in B.C. Although most occur in wilderness areas, they are still a major concern for industries such as forestry, winter tourism, transportation, construction, engineering and mining.

Avalanches account for more fatalities than any other natural hazard in the province, and the growing popularity of heli-skiing and other backcountry recreational pursuits has increased the number of deaths and injuries, McClung said.

The concern is greatest for heli-skiing companies, which must deal with changing snow conditions over vast areas, but even fixed-lift ski areas must manage avalanche hazards. Whistler/Blackcomb, for example, has more than 500 avalanche paths in and around its ski areas.

McClung's research will provide the ski industry with better weather and avalanche forecasting, improved control methods and better risk assessment.

Increased knowledge of avalanches is also critical for the forest industry, McClung said. Avalanches that start in clearcuts or descend into them can destroy valuable timber, create new avalanche paths, remove soil cover and prevent forest regeneration.

"The problem in B.C. is unique and pervasive," he said, "but this is the first time it has been examined. We want to build a solid database of information, and using the expertise of our colleagues in the forest industry, develop decision-making tools for logging steep terrain."

Avalanches are far more frequent than other mountain slope hazards such as debris torrents, McClung said.

Every winter in Western Canada there are about 200,000 avalanches large enough to cause significant destruction of timber.

Aside from disease, avalanches rank with fires and humans as the greatest modifiers of forest cover in B.C.