Avalanche!

Mike Cooperstein
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Science Discovery Teen Café

Description

It is well known that Colorado experiences avalanches. Over the last decade, February has been the most deadly month for avalanches in the state, with a quarter of the deaths due to avalanche occurring in that month. That being said, a Science Discovery Teen Café (in Boulder), leading into avalanche season was the perfect time to brush up on our knowledge of avalanches and safety.
Mike Cooperstein is an Avalanche Forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He works with a team of scientists with diverse backgrounds in meteorology, snow science, geography, hydrology, and computer science. Together, with this team of scientists, their job is to predict where in the state of Colorado avalanches are likely to occur and to make decisions about closing highways, backcountry ski areas, and using explosives where needed to intentionally trigger avalanches, all in the name of keeping us safe.
In this café, Mike shared a presentation about avalanche safety, how to read the warning signs, avoid dangerous areas, and what to do in response. He spoke about the technical details of his work, how they use remote sensing, met stations, GIS technology and old fashioned snow sampling on the ground to forecast places where weather, the kind of snow and ice crystals that will form, and previously existing snow conditions on the ground will combine in dangerous ways.

Hands on Activity

For the activity, students were given the opportunity to grow their own snow crystals. Using insulated chambers, wet sponges, dangling paperclips, and dry ice, teens were able to manipulate the temperatures across which ice crystals might form. After setting the experiment up, students shared their prior knowledge about avalanches and snow conditions, and the fields involved in avalanche research. When groups returned to their crystal growing chambers, they found up to two different types of crystals on the thread inside. With elaborate shapes and very different structures, the crystals demonstrated how variation in temperature and humidity can cause ice to form differently. Because  of the differences in their shapes, these crystals behave differently when they’re part of snowpack, some being more slippery and some being more stable than others.