How a Snowflake Turns Into an Avalanche – Issue 23: Dominoes

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It was just a regular day at the Yellowstone Club in Montana, as far as the weather was concerned. No heavy snowfall or vicious winds were preventing snow mechanics engineer David Walters and five of his colleagues from doing their field work. Walters’ academic advisor had even chosen to do some skiing nearby. But just as the team were about to leave, Walters heard a cry. An avalanche had begun to tumble down around his advisor, Daniel Miller.

Thankfully, it was a small one, and slid only about 30 feet down the mountain. But what was remarkable was that it had happened at all. The slope Miller had been skiing down had a gentle, 22-degree incline. According to the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, one of the largest research institutes of its kind, inclines less than 30 degrees are considered safe. “We always have this 30-degree number in our head,” Walters told me. “A 22-degree slope—we almost consider that a golf course!”

The 30-degree rule of thumb is just one of many qualitative characterizations of the ultimate domino in the snow. Avalanche forecasting relies on subjective interpretation, both of…

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