It may sound silly to say that COVID is responsible for the number of avalanches this season. Maybe so, but it certainly has had an impact since more people are flocking to the mountains in an effort to escape crowded metro areas.
So far this winter season, 33 people have died in US avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) which is not far from the record of 36 deaths in 2008 and reached again in 2010. Technically speaking, there are three factors needed needed for an avalanche to occur, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for an avalanche to occur. These are a slope, snowpack and a trigger.
A slope is easily defined. Snowpack refers to the accumulation of snow on the ground. Snow builds in layers and each snowstorm brings a different type of snow. This year, the weaker layers are in the underbelly of the snowpack, while the stronger layers are on top.thus creating an unstable surface, according to the CAIC,
“Like any structure, you don’t want your weakest materials at the bottom, so when you build a snowpack structure with weaker layers under stronger layers, its the perfect condition to produce avalanches,”said Brian Lazar, deputy director at CAIC. Lazar says the effects of climate change — in particular, long drought periods followed by intense precipitation events — contributed to this season’s weak snowpack.
And, The Human Factor
According to the Utah Avalanche Center, bout 90% of avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s group. More people than ever are heading to the mountains to enjoy nature and avoid crowds, where the virus spreads. and many are taking up skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.
While a small percentage may take up backcountry skiing or snowboarding, enough are increasing the numbers and, thus, creating more instances of avalanches. These instances are concentrated among resorts in the western part of the U.S. that sit at higher elevations. For example, Utah has experienced its share of avalanches and the roads leading to popular resorts have had to close due to avalanche danger.
Pennsylvania is one state that has little fear of avalanches. The state has benefitted from abundant snowfall this winter but PA resorts rely more heavily on machine-made snow.
A recent report in OnTheSnow.com predicts that some Pennsylvania resorts will stay open until the end of March and maybe into April. That would be an exceptionally long season for a Mid-Atlantic state that primarily caters to skiers and snowboarders from bordering or nearby states such as New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia not to mention the District of Columbia.