Posted on 06/19/2014 at 01:54 PM By Pedro

In a departure from the last article, I want to spend some time talking about current snow science and avalanche education research SnowGeek and SnowProject are involved with. Some of our research was presented earlier in June at a cryosphere conference in Argentina. The rest of our research will be published later this year at a combination of peer-reviewed journals and the International Snow Scientist Workshop (ISSW) in Banf, Canada.

This year we submitted five abstracts for ISSW on a range of topics, all of which were accepted for the conference. Today I want to present the abstract submitted for each one.

Abstract 1: The Stability Wheel

Authors: Pedro Rodriguez, Santiago Rodriguez

The introduction of anti-crack theory by Heierli et al. 2008 dramatically improved the understanding of avalanche fracture mechanics. Unfortunately, the leap from theory to practice in the avalanche education classroom has left much to be desired. This motivated the creation of the Stability Wheel, a decision-making framework and didactic teaching tool. The Stability Wheel is a visual representation of the likelihoods of Trigger, Propagation, and Slip, the events required by anti-crack theory to create a slab avalanche. In a wide range and high number of Avalanche Level 1, Level 2, and ProAVI courses across Idaho, California, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Argentina, Chile, and Austria taught in English, Spanish, and German, it has proved invaluable. The Stability Wheel has been revolutionary in its ability to transform avalanche mechanics theory into both a didactic teaching tool, and an intuitive decision-making framework for students.

The basis for our work with the Stability Wheel as an education too came from a drastic change in the understanding in avalanche fracture mechanics. Old and now defunct theories held it was due to shear failure. It is now known that avalanches fail in the same way that glass breaks: point failure which propagates through the medium. From here, we developed a decision making tool which applies this new understanding of fundamental science and now present our findings of using it for the past 4 years in education.

Abstract 2: Hybridized Learning with EdX in Avalanche Education

Authors: Pedro Rodriguez, Karl Geisler, Santiago Rodriguez

The recent explosion and success of online education and hybridization at top tier United States universities begs the question: can the avalanche education community benefit from the lessons learned and technology? Specifically the success of EdX has been the inspiration for advancing this cause. EdX is a non-profit organization founded by MIT and Harvard in May 2012 to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) and has since grown to over 2 million users and 47 other institutions

We propose that hybridized courses will contribute to solving many recurrent problems in avalanche education. We discuss how hybridized models of education can for example alleviate the common problem of students being overloaded with course information not due to difficulty, but because its presented in such a short span of time, typically 1 or 2 days. Hybridized models encourage student participation in a more evenly spread out fashion and allow for instant feedback while studying.

In this paper we present our findings and challenges encountered from running a partially hybridized Avalanche Level 1 course in Lake Tahoe this past winter. We more broadly discuss how the EdX platform can be used to raise the quality and availability of avalanche courses and content through collaboration via openness and hybridized models of education.

Abstract 3: Data Integration in Tools for Backcountry Users

Authors: Pedro Rodriguez, Santiago Rodriguez, Hans Peter Marshall, Beau Uriona, Matt Jacobs

The growth of the web and data in recent years has introduced the unprecedented opportunity and challenge to combine many rich data sources to gain insight on avalanche and snow conditions. Over the past year at SnowGeek we have been developing tools to aid backcountry users and researchers to access and interpret this data. In our first tool found at, we present the user with search bar. We utilize Google APIs to tie a specific location text query with GPS coordinates, then use this to fetch data from a variety of data sources covering weather, Snotel, map, and forecast data, and finally render it appropriately as text, numbers, plots, or maps.

In the course of building this tool and several others not yet released, we explored the landscape of available data sources and and built Ruby language APIs on top of NOAA and Snotel which will be open sourced with full documentation for developers by the time of ISSW. We used data from: Snotel by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Weather from NOAA and ForecastIO, maps from Google and CalTopo, and Avalanche Forecast centers. In this paper we discuss using these data sources from the perspectives of the data providers, developers, and end users with the goal of making informative and intuitive tools for backcountry users.

Abstract 4: Applications of Low Cost, Low Power FMCW Radar in the Characterization of Dry Snow

Authors: Santiago Rodriguez, Hans Peter Marshall, Pedro Rodriguez

Low cost and low power 10GHz and 25 GHz Microwave Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave radars have been developed and tested in the Andean snowpack during the Austral winters of 2013, and in the mountains of Idaho and Colorado during the Northern Hemisphere Winter of 2013-2014. A new generation of compact and low cost radars make it easier for researchers to study snow at remote locations and to deploy remote instrumentation in the field due to their low power requirements. System components cost in the range of 2000 US$, volume of less than 4000 cubic cm and weighting as little as 1.3 kg opens the door for new applications in avalanche safety and hydrological applications. 

Examples of applications tested are snow surveys at remote mountain locations, snow depth and snow-water-equivalent at hydrological stations. During the upcoming Austral Winter of 2014, testing of other applications in the Andes Mountains are targeted such as monitoring of avalanche starting zones for remote triggering as well as confirming avalanches releases during low visibility periods.

Abstract 5: Snowpack Temperature Studies with Low Cost Infrared Thermometers

Authors: Santiago Rodriguez, Hans Peter Marshall, Pedro Rodriguez

Temperature profiles from intermountain (Idaho), maritime (Chile and Argentina Northern Patagonia), and high elevation maritime transitional (Las Leñas-Argentina) snowpacks were studied using low cost/compact infrared (IR) thermometers. Results were compared with fast response thermocouple based sensors to validate the use of low cost IR thermometry for field practitioners, to identify shortcomings and suggest protocols for use. Geostatistical methods such as semi-variogram analysis are employed to gain insight about the spatial variability of snow temperature both vertically and horizontally. Numerical modeling of heat diffusion in snow is used to interpret differences between the two measurement approaches and the spatial patterns observed. IR measurements in snowpits measure the temperature of only the exposed snow, and therefore can change quickly following pit excavation. We also explore how a simplified thermal model could assist practitioners in the visualization of the snowpack temperature dynamics during different weather regimes and snowpack structures.

Hopefully this was a good preview of the research SnowGeek and its partner SnowProject are involved in. As a bonus, below is a link to the conference poster for the radar research presented at the Argentine conference in both English and Spanish.

Radar Research Poster (English)

Radar Research Poster (Spanish)




Pedro Rodriguez

SnowGeek Founder

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