Florian Herla, Pascal Haegeli, Simon Horton, and Patrick Mair
EGUsphere [preprint], https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-2023-420
Publication year: 2023

This article is currently under review for the Open Access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Science. Click here to download a copy.


Avalanche warning services increasingly employ large-scale snow stratigraphy simulations to improve their insight into the current state of the snowpack. These simulations contain information about thin, persistent critical avalanche layers that are buried within the snowpack and are fundamental drivers of avalanche hazard. However, the data volume, data complexity, and unknown validity have so far limited the value of the simulations for operational decisions. We attribute this at least partially to a lack of research that validates the simulations for their capability to represent the existence and instability of known critical layers at the regional scale. To address this knowledge gap, we present methods that enable meaningful comparisons between regional assessments of avalanche forecasters and snowpack simulations that are distributed across entire forecast regions. We applied these methods to operational data sets of ten winter seasons and three public forecast regions in western Canada and thereby quantified the performance of the Canadian weather and snowpack model chain to represent persistent critical avalanche layers. We found that the overall probability of detecting a known critical layer in the simulations can be as high as 75 % when accepting a low probability of 40 % that any simulated layer is actually of operational concern in reality. Furthermore, we explored patterns that characterize which layers were represented well and which were not. Faceted layers, for example, were captured well but also caused most false alarms, whereas surface hoar layers tended to be less prevalent but in return were mostly of operational concern when modeled. Overall, our results suggest that the simulations provide a valuable starting point for targeted field observations as well as a rich complementary information source that can help alert forecasters about the existence of specific critical layers or provide an independent perspective on their instability. However, we do not believe that the existing model chain is sufficiently reliable to generate assessments purely based on simulations. We conclude by presenting our vision of a real-time operational validation suite that can help forecasters develop a better understanding of the simulations’ strengths and weaknesses by continuously comparing assessments and simulations in a user-friendly manner.