Careers Interview: Avalanche Researcher
Plus caught up with jet-lagged avalanche researcher, Jim
McElwaine, who had just flown back from Japan to begin a new job in
Cambridge. Jim completed a mathematics degree at Cambridge University and then went on
to do research for a PhD in quantum mechanics. (Quantum mechanics
involves the study of matter and radiation at an atomic level.) It was
not until the end of his PhD that he made the decision to change
direction and go into avalanche research.
"I've been climbing since I was a boy and when I went to University I
did a lot of alpine climbing and skiing. On one climbing trip to the
Himalayas I was actually buried in an avalanche. I was up to
my neck in snow and it felt completely solid... as if someone had
poured a wall of concrete around me and I was unable to move.
Fortunately, there was someone around to dig me out..."
"I have always been interested in mathematics and physics and wanted
to do research. I chose my PhD area partly because I wanted to
research some of the most basic and difficult parts of physics. My
PhD work was not directly relevant to working on avalanche research
but it did show me how to carry out mathematical research and computer
Jim's decision to go into avalanche research was triggered by watching
a television programme on the subject. "I was watching a Channel 4
series called Equinox on avalanche research with some friends. One of
them said that I should be doing that and I just told them not to be
so stupid. Afterwards I realised that it was a fantastic opportunity
to combine the two things that I love most - mathematics and
Jim's work has taken him to Hokkaido University in Japan followed
by a two-year stint at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps
before returning for further work in Japan. His activities outside
work include mountain skiing (six hours to go up Mt. Fuji and half an
hour to come down) and river climbing. "River climbing is just as
dangerous as it sounds. Most of us ended up in hospital after our
first attempt in 1998." Jim was also part of a team that carried out
to attempt to climb Manda III in the Himalayas in 1992.
work that Jim carries out often requires both mathematical and
mountaineering skills. In 1999, he was one of a team that was sent
out to investigate the avalanche which killed 12 people near Chamonix
in the Swiss alps.
"Being able to travel safely through the mountains in Winter is
essential and this requires Winter mountaineering and ski
mountaineering experience. I teach the other members of the
investigation team simple rope work and I also instruct on avalanche
Jim went on to explain the type of conditions in snow that can trigger
"Avalanches occur when the weight of the snow exceeds the strength of
a layer in the snow or the strength of the bonding to the ground.
Certain factors which increase the load, such as a skier going down
the mountain or falling ice, can also help to trigger an avalanche."
Avalanches are categorised as either loose snow or slab avalanches and
within these categories they are also subdivided into wet or dry.
Dry loose snow avalanches often occur during storms or within 48 hours
of a storm when lots of snow has fallen. If the weight increases
faster than the snow is consolidating and strengthening it fails and an
avalanche occurs. The angle is usually between 30 and 50 degrees. Not
much snow will stick on steeper slopes.
Wet loose snow avalanches occur in spring or when rain falls. If there
is enough water in the snow and it reaches the ground it can form a
lubricating layer and a full-depth (all the snow right down to the
ground) avalanche occurs. The slope need only be 15 degrees
steep. These are particularly frequent at high latitudes when they can
have a very high water content and become slush flows.
Slab avalanches occur when there is a weak layer in the snowpack. The
most frequent cause in the European alps is caused by the wind
transporting snow and redepositing as stiff slabs. Often a skier
moves into the middle of a slab and then it fractures so that the
entire slope starts to move simultaneously.
Snow metamorphism caused by temperature gradients can also lead to
weak layers which can survive for weeks in the snow until an avalanche
occurs. They need only be 1mm thick and can be very difficult to spot.
There are various methods of simulating avalanches in experimental
"In winter we use real snow and drop it down chutes and in summer we
use ping-pong balls. Other people do small scale experiments in the
laboratory in water tanks with suspensions of fine grains, or in
experiments on slopes with sand or ice particles."
Jim was recently involved in an avalanche simulation experiment where
up to 550,000 ping pong balls (more than 1 ton in weight) were
released at the top of the Miyanomori ski jump in Japan and their
subsequent motion was analysed using video cameras. The flows caused
by such simulations are much simpler than real avalanches but they do
have similarities and any model that cannot explain these flows will
almost certainly fail on real avalanches.
We asked Jim how mathematics is used to forecast avalanches.
Avalanche forecasting involves synthesising models over many
scales. The primary input is the current weather and the weather
history obtained from a large-scale meteorological model. This is fed
into a local meteorological model that can calculate wind speed,
precipitation and temperature on a local level of about 1km. If
topographic effects are important a much finer model must be used that
can provide data down to 1m or so. The meteorological data provides
the input for a snowpack models that simulates the evolution of the
individual snow crystals. The output of this is then examined by an
expert system that decides whether or not the snowpack is stable and
what the avalanche hazard is. Experts with local knowledge are still
very important and complete forecasting systems are only in their
There are three possible routes to becoming an avalanche researcher. One
is to work as an academic in a university department.
This is not particularly well paid but you have a lot of freedom to
pursue your own interests. Another possibility is to work in an
avalanche research laboratory. This is better paid but more like
consulting engineering with less choice about what one does. Norway,
France and Switzerland all have research laboratories of this type.
The third route is to work directly with avalanches on a day-to-day
basis either in a ski resort or in a region where daily forecasts are
necessary to protect transport links or habitation.
Finally, we asked Jim how he proposed to continue with his
research in Cambridge which is an area where mountains, or even
hills, are somewhat hard to find and must surely be one of the least
avalanche-prone regions of Europe.
Dr. Jim McElwaine
" There are plenty of researchers in the UK studying glaciers and
volcanoes even though there haven't been any glaciers since the last
ice age and volcanoes are none too common either. For practical
applications of my research and field data I'll continue to
work closely with colleagues around the world. But one of the
beauties of mathematical research is that it can often be applied in
different fields. Snow avalanches can be regarded as a special case
of a granular flow and the research can be applied to anything from
pouring salt out of a salt cellar to undersea landslides and