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Scientists examine snow from the inside to understand avalanche hazards

In the cooling laboratory, on the other hand, where the temperature is 8 degrees below zero, the focus is on a one-square-meter panel that is brilliantly lit by an artificial sun and guarded by an icy artificial sky that can be varied widely to replicate different winter ones Conditions. With a puffy down jacket, woolen hat and sunglasses, Dr. Adams, how he can reproduce the most varied of conditions on mountain slopes and create different types of snow. “We want to understand what conditions cause the change in the crystalline structure and the bond between crystals,” he said. It is the missing piece of the puzzle to understanding avalanches.

After he and his students and colleagues have produced the snow crystals under certain conditions, they examine them carefully to see which conditions exist for the strongest or weakest layers. Layers of snow are key to predicting avalanches.

The main cause of avalanches is a weak layer of snow on a slope covered by solid layers, said Dr. Adams. “The weak layers are faceted crystals, very smooth and not connected to each other,” he says, almost like ball bearings. Strong layers have stronger bonds between crystals, which makes them more stable.

“It’s like a layered cake with very light frosting,” said Dr. Adams. If something causes the weak layer, usually less than an inch thick, to give way, does the strong layer or layers give way? there can be dozens, some of them are feet thick ?? go with it. Even skiing at low altitudes can break open a weak layer and trigger an avalanche far above. Contrary to popular belief, sound does not cause avalanches unless it comes from an explosion.

Some ski areas offer skiers free skiing in exchange for “packing your shoes” ?? trample weak layers with their boots to harden them.

The key to improving prediction, said Dr. Adams, is the understanding of the surface layer in which the sun and cold change the snow crystals. Understanding the transfer of energy at the surface can shed some light on what is going on underneath.

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