It’s America’s deadliest avalanche season in years. Experts say Covid is partly to blame

Some experts say it’s also to blame for a recent spike in avalanche deaths. Seriously.

So far this winter season, 33 people have died in U.S. avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). This is not far from the record of 36 deaths set in 2008 and reached again in 2010.

But a unique combination of climate and pandemic trends could see the United States breaking the record. Here’s why:

The climate creates avalanche conditions …

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the three factors necessary for an avalanche to occur are slope, snowpack, and trigger.

The slope is obvious. But snowpack refers to the accumulation of snow on the ground.

Each storm brings a different type of snow, which builds up in layers. This year, the weakest layers are deep in the snowpack, while the strongest layers are above. This creates an incredibly unstable surface, says Brian Lazar, deputy director of CAIC.

“This year we’re seeing a pretty dangerous snowpack, the kind of unique conditions that only happen once every 10 years or so,” Lazar told CNN. “This structure is very conducive to the production of avalanches.”

“Like any structure, you don’t want your weaker materials to be at the bottom, so when you build a snowpack structure with weaker layers under stronger layers, this is the perfect condition for producing avalanches.” , did he declare.

Lazar says the effects of climate change – in particular, long periods of drought followed by intense rainfall – have contributed to the weak snowpack this season.

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“This year has been characterized by early season snowfall that stuck to the ground followed by a fairly severe drought, and when you have those dry spells in cold, clear weather it turns the existing snow. to the ground in weak layers, ”he said.

… but the people of the hinterland trigger them

About 90% of avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or by a member of the victim’s group, depending on the Utah Avalanche Center.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in the United States, more people than ever are heading to the mountains to enjoy nature and avoid the crowds, where the virus is spreading. Many take up skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.

Snow Trails, a ski resort in Mansfield, Ohio, saw a 60% increase in visitor numbers from last year’s winter season, spokesperson Nate Wolleson told CNN .

It’s a trend that is spreading across the country, including many public and national parks, according to Dr. Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center at the US Forest Service.

While the increased number of visitors is generally a good thing, this season’s poor snowpack has made winter sports much more dangerous – especially in the hinterland, where avalanches are common.

“We are seeing a dramatic increase in the use of our public lands, so there are more people skiing and snowboarding, and that means there are more potential triggers,” Birkeland said. “The pandemic has certainly increased the number of people going to the backcountry, which has increased our exposure to potential avalanche accidents.”

CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam echoed Birkeland’s assessment, saying weak snowpack combined with a higher rate of backcountry traffic contributed to the peak in avalanche deaths this season.

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“People just want to recreate outside and avoid big crowds,” he said. “Ski touring offers that escape to a certain extent.”

But many of those people lack winter sports experience, unfamiliar with the terrain, and lack avalanche rescue equipment, said Craig Gordon, forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center.

He suggests visitors to check avalanche forecast before embarking on adventures and carrying security equipment, such as shovels and beacons, which emit radio signals used to locate buried victims.

“Regardless of how you plan to recreate in the backcountry, make sure you have the equipment, the training, the forecast and avoid the hazards,” Gordon said.

CNN’s Jennifer Gray and Drew Kann contributed to this report.

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