WEATHER

It’s the US’ deadliest avalanche season in years. is COVID-19 to blame?

Apr 4, 2021, 1:23 PM
Looking across at the avalanche that caught four skiers on February 1, 2021. Their ski tracks are v...
Looking across at the avalanche that caught four skiers on February 1, 2021. Their ski tracks are visible to the right of the avalanche, but where they entered into the gully is obscured by trees. Further to the right you can see a second, smaller avalanche, that released sympathetically to the first. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
(Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
Originally Published: 04 APR 21 02:03 ET

(CNN) — The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the US economy, health care system and schools.

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

So far this winter season, 36 people have died in US avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), tying the record set in 2008 and reached again in 2010.

But a unique combination of climate- and pandemic-related trends could see the US break the record. Here’s why:

Climate creates avalanche conditions…

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

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

Every storm brings a different type of snow, which builds in layers. This year, the weaker layers are deep in the snowpack, while the stronger layers are on top. That makes for an incredibly unstable surface, says Brian Lazar, deputy director at CAIC.

“This year we are seeing a pretty dangerous snowpack, the kind of unique conditions that only come around once every 10 years or so,” Lazar told CNN. “This structure is highly conducive to producing avalanches.”

“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,” he said.

Lazar says the effects of climate change — in particular, long drought periods followed by intense precipitation events — contributed to this season’s weak snowpack.

“This year was characterized by early season snowfall that stuck on the ground followed by a fairly pronounced drought period, and when you have these drought periods during cold, clear conditions, it turns the existing snow on the ground into weak layers,” he said.

…But people in the backcountry trigger them

About 90% of avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s group, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the US, more people than ever are heading to the mountains to enjoy nature and avoid crowds, where the virus spreads. Many are taking up skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.

Snow Trails, a ski resort in Mansfield, Ohio, has experienced a 60% increase in visitors compared to last year’s winter season, spokesperson Nate Wolleson told CNN.

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

Although more visitors is usually a good thing, this season’s weak snowpack has made winter sports a lot more dangerous — especially in the backcountry, where avalanches are common.

“We are seeing dramatic increases in use in our public lands, so there’s more people out there skiing and snowboarding, and it means there’s more potential triggers,” Birkeland said. “The pandemic has definitely increased the number of people going into the backcountry, which increased our exposure to potential avalanche accidents.”

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

“People simply want to recreate outdoors and avoid large crowds,” he said. “Backcountry skiing provides this escape to a certain extent.”

But a lot of these people don’t have experience in winter sports, aren’t familiar with the terrain and lack avalanche rescue gear, said Craig Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center.

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

“No matter how you plan to recreate in the backcountry, make sure to get the gear, training, forecast, and get out of harms way,” Gordon said.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Today’s Top Stories

Weather

The Utah Department of Public Safety issued an apology to the family of a woman who was allegedly r...
Mark Jones

Northbound I-15 in Juab County closed for a time Wednesday night

The Utah Highway Patrol says northbound I-15 in Juab County has been closed between exits 222 and 228 due to crashes in relation to winter weather.
1 day ago
The National Weather Service predicts another snowstorm to hit northern Utah just in time for the W...
Simone Seikaly

Snow expected to impact Wednesday evening commute

The National Weather Service expects from 1 to 4 inches of snow, beginning Wednesday afternoon. Another storm is right behind it.
1 day ago
Portions of Salt Lake County saw fog on Tuesday morning, a weather phenomenon that doesn't typicall...
Allie Litzinger and Simone Seikaly

Great Salt Lake, moisture created Tuesday’s commuter fog and maybe Wednesday’s

Moisture in the air and proximity to the Great Salt Lake, and the lake's temperature, all combined for Tuesday's foggy commute.
2 days ago
A snowy mountain with trees is pictured, avalanche risk is measured often this time of year...
Adam Small

How do forecasters determine avalanche risk?

Determining the avalanche risk for any given day takes coordination between avalanche forecasters and the National Weather Service.
2 days ago
The view at Snowbasin Resort....
Alejandro Lucero

Avalanche safety should be on everyone’s mind says forecaster

An avalanche avoidance and preperation can help keep everyone safe while enjoying the greatest snow on Earth.
3 days ago
drivers make a snowy commute up little cottonwood canyon as utah weather keeps dumping snow...
Adam Small

Wasatch Front gets snow, Utah drivers get tough commute

Snowy weather conditions brought early-morning drivers in Utah some rough commutes on Monday. Utah County got the worst of it.
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
It’s the US’ deadliest avalanche season in years. is COVID-19 to blame?