Simon Horton, Moses Towell, and Pascal Haegeli
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 3551–3576,
Publication year: 2020

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Avalanche problems are used in avalanche forecasting to describe snowpack, weather, and terrain factors that require distinct risk management techniques. Although they have become an effective tool for assessing and communicating avalanche hazard, their definitions leave room for interpretation and inconsistencies. This study uses conditional inference trees to explore the application of avalanche problems over eight winters in Glacier National Park, Canada. The influence of weather and snowpack variables on each avalanche problem type were explored by analyzing a continuous set of weather and snowpack variables produced with a numerical weather prediction model and a physical snow cover model. The decision trees suggest forecasters’ assessments are not only based on a physical analysis of weather and snowpack conditions, but also contextual information about the time of season, location, and interactions with other avalanche problems. The decision trees show clearer patterns when new avalanche problems were added to hazard assessments compared to when problems were removed. Despite discrepancies between modelled variables and field observations, the model-generated variables produced intuitive explanations for conditions influencing most avalanche problem types. For example, 72 h snowfall was the most significant variable for storm slab avalanche problems, skier penetration depth was the most significant variable for dry loose avalanche problems, and slab density was the most significant variable for persistent slab avalanche problems. The explanations for wind slab and cornice avalanche problems were less intuitive, suggesting potential inconsistencies in their application as well as shortcomings of the model-generated data. The decision trees illustrate how forecasters apply avalanche problems and can inform discussions about improved operational practices and the development of data-driven decision aids.