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Snow Sensors to Predict Avalanche Conditions at Alaska’s Turnagain Pass

The popular backcountry skiing destination will have several sensors installed to detect seismic activity that could warn officials about possible avalanches.

(TNS) -- At one of the most popular winter riding destinations in Southcentral Alaska, backcountry conditions are getting a little bit more predictable and possibly safer for skiers and snowboarders.

This fall, snow sensors designed to measure depth and temperature will be installed at Tincan Ridge in Turnagain Pass at 2,400 feet in a project led by the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

Avalanches are common at the popular backcountry skiing and snowboarding destination. Of the 21 recorded human-triggered avalanches at Turnagain Pass last winter, eight were triggered on Tincan Ridge, according to data from CNFAIC director and forecaster Wendy Wagner. Five people were caught in avalanches, but there were no deaths.

“This is the most popular place for people to go backcountry skiing,” Wagner said.

“In my opinion it was no more avalanche-prone than other area," Wagner said. “There was so little snow, so there were only two places that were easily accessible. One was Tincan Ridge, so we saw that the majority of the use at Turnagain Pass happened at Tincan -- that is why we had more avalanches (there).”

The information the snow sensors will provide is just one piece of evaluating avalanche conditions, but Wagner said the snow sensors will help paint a more timely, clear and accurate portrayal of conditions and all the information will be available through the CNFAIC website after the installation is complete.

“It’s not the Holy Grail, it’s just one piece of information -- one really great piece,” Wagner said. “We will use that to see change in temperatures. ... It can tell us how much snow has fallen during a storm. It can tell us how quickly the snow’s coming in ... It's super important for forecasting,” Wagner said.

“This will give us a better idea of how quickly it’s piling up and if it’s raining, which we hope doesn’t happen. We’ll know if it’s wet and heavy or light and dry.”

The sensors are on long-term loan to CNFAIC from BeadedStream. According to Wagner, the installation of the snow sensors is a bit of an experiment. On the high ridge, they’ll have little natural protection from the elements.

“The snow and the wind can destroy equipment,” Wagner said.

But according to BeadedStream instrumentation consultant and critical data delivery specialist Zachary Seligman, a simple wedge installed with the sensors could help deflect strong, fast-moving snow and weather.

Seligman said similar inventions -- like the simple cable wire snow sensors -- are used around the world, particularly in Europe, where massive avalanches can destroy local infrastructure.

This summer, the housing units for the snow sensors were installed. The actual sensors will be installed later this fall.

©2015 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.