FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – If the long-awaited relief from the bitter cold comes next week as the weather forecast predicts, that could create some dangerous conditions for avalanches in the Northern Rockies.
Ryan Buhler, forecaster with Avalanche Canada, says the main concern in the region lately has been the cold and the wind.
“We’ve been dealing with the cold weather, and the main problems we’ve been dealing with are all wind-related. We’ve been seeing the wind blow from the north, and the majority of the avalanche problems are wind slabs,” said Buhler.
“We’re expecting a new round of wind slabs forming over the weekend with that strong wind and a bit of new snow. Right now, the hazard has been at a moderate level, and I would expect through the weekend, we’ll see it at a considerable hazard.”
With the prolonged cold possibly being met by positive temperatures next week, Buhler says major warming events pose significant risk.
“We’re always watching for major warm ups. After it’s been so cold for so long and then we get the major warming, the eastern slopes of the Rockies may see some of that substantial warming. That can have a destabilizing effect on the snowpack. Depending on how much of that warming we actually see push into the mountains, we may see the hazard increase during that period.”
The reason a major temperature shift is dangerous is that it worsens weaknesses in the existing snowpack.
“If there are weaknesses in the snowpack, we could see them decrease instability, and we could see some problems arise. It’s looking like there’s also going to be a lot of sun, so by Monday and Tuesday, I’d be using a lot of extra caution on south-facing slopes in the afternoon when the sun is on them. That can create a round of natural avalanches that are triggered by the sun. But over the weekend, it’s mainly storm and wind-related avalanche problems.”
Buhler says in the Northern Rockies region, this winter has been about average, but the atmospheric river event that caused major flooding in November has created a persistent weak layer in the South Rockies.
If residents are itching to get on their sleds or get out in the backcountry, Buhler says managing the cold is a priority.
“Cold weather management’s a huge thing for mountain safety. Having extra gear in case something goes wrong, managing your exposure to the cold, I don’t imagine there’s a lot of people out right now with these temperatures, though.”
For updates to avalanche conditions and hazards, go to the Avalanche Canada website.