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Sylvan Lake on Sylvan Pass

Yellowstone National Park on Avalanche Alert

January 14, 2009 01:32 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
After a month of frequent and unexplained earthquakes, Yellowstone National Park is experiencing dangerous avalanche conditions like much of the American West.

Yellowstone Avalanches

This winter has proven to be a busy time for avalanches in Yellowstone and throughout much of the Western United States, according to the Cody Enterprise.

“In the last two weeks we’ve had avalanche activity in areas where it was not expected,” said Maura Longdon, who performs avalanche evaluation in the park. Longdon and her team told the paper that 48 avalanches had taken place on the park’s Sylvan Pass since Dec. 19.

Each day, Longdon’s team must determine whether avalanche conditions are too dangerous for others to travel through the pass by studying weather patterns, how the snow is resting on the ground and several other conditions. When they feel a snow slide could happen, the team uses a howitzer to intentionally trigger an avalanche. Then, road crews clear the pass of snow and debris, resulting in a period of “relative safety” for travelers, The Billings Gazette explained.
“I say relative safety because you’re never 100 percent safe when there is snow on the slopes,” she clarified.

Longdon recently made presentations to residents of Cody, Wyo., explaining her work. “I was amazed at all the things they go through,” Karen McCreery, a representative for U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, stated. “It’s not just hit or miss, it’s very scientific and a lot of information goes into it.”

With Avalanches, Yellowstone Faces Other Changes

Change is a common feature of Yellowstone Park. On Oct. 27, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicated that “climatic warming already has disrupted one of the best-protected ecosystems on our planet,” according to Bloomberg.

For six decades, scientists have monitored the park, and found that frogs, toads and salamanders in the park’s wetlands are on the decline.

Scientists have known for some time that ecological changes are also underway in the Lamar Valley, popular for an array of wildlife. Robert L. Crabtree, chief scientist for the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, explained that “the early stages of a new ecosystem” are underway there.

A drought has dried out once marshy areas, and a plant that found its way to North America from the Mediterranean, the Canada thistle, has moved in. With the thistle, gophers have entered the area to feed on the plant’s roots. Grizzly bears are feeding more on gophers and the caches of food they leave behind.

More recently, a swarm of earthquakes in the park renewed concerns about what a giant volcano under the park had in store. Hundreds of small earthquakes measuring less than 4.0 in magnitude shook the park, but didn’t cause any damage. However, increased seismic activity at the park raised the question: is the supervolcano going to erupt?

Related Topic: Avalanche risks around the West

As of Dec. 25, 2008, at least 39 people in the United States had been killed in avalanches, according to ABC News. “The avalanche hazard is high virtually everywhere in the West right now, from the southern Sierras through the northern Rockies,” Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, stated.

Late October snowfall made for “an unusually unstable snowpack” that could break apart easily, and winter blizzards continued to make the problem even more dangerous. Brett Kobernik, a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center, told ABC News, “It’s like trying to place a car on top of a pile of potato chips.” 

Avalanche problems are creating trouble for communities and ski resorts, too. Jackson Hole, Wyo., spent almost half of its avalanche control budget in one month; the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia, Canada, has stationed guards at various points to stop skiers and snowboarders from going into dangerous areas.

“We’re off to a scary start; this December saw the most recorded avalanche fatalities for any December since the mining days,” Dale Atkins, vice president for the avalanche rescue commission at the International Commission for Alpine Rescue, told The New York Times.

Lanny Johnson, a former patroller at the Alpine Meadows ski resort in Lake Tahoe, described the situation as “a war zone.” He said trying to understand the rush of avalanches has “the best in the field scratching their heads.”

Reference: National Parks


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