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World's largest avalanche-detection system faces first big test

Monday, December 2nd 2019, 2:54 pm - 13 infrasound panels and 3 radar detectors are designed to notify avalanche experts of slides

What the Canadian government trumpets as the largest and most extensive avalanche detection network in the world is expected to be put to the test any day now — with the first big dump of snow.

The $3-million system was installed this year in Rogers Pass, a high-mountain pass in Glacier National Park.

The system was designed by the Swiss and uses two technologies to detect avalanches, and notify avalanche experts: 13 infrasound panels which sense low-frequency sound, and three radar detectors.

Avalanche detection system CBC Parks Canada A worker installs one of the new radar sensor in Glacier National Park to detect avalanches near the Trans-Canada Highway through Rogers Pass. (Parks Canada)

"So with darkness or during storms it's difficult to assess what activity is going on," says Jeff Goodrich, senior avalanche officer with Parks Canada.

"With this new avalanche detection network we will get alerts to which avalanche paths are running."

The detectors will pick up the slightest sound vibration given off by a powder cloud created when an avalanche hits.

"We'll be getting texts on our cell phones to let us know avalanche activity is happening," says Goodrich.

Parks Canada officer goodrich CBC Jeff Goodrich, a Senior Avalanche Officer with parks Canada in front of one of 13 infrasound panels in the Rogers Pass. (Bob Keating/CBC)

Rogers Pass and the Trans Canada Highway that cuts through it is the busiest rail and road corridor to the Pacific Coast.

It also closes frequently because of avalanches and avalanche control. There are 134 avalanche paths in just a 42 kilometre stretch of the highway over the pass, through Glacier National Park.

In the past, it often closed for days at a time. But Parks Canada spokesperson Shelley Bird says they've got that down to an average of about 60 hours a season. And they're hoping this system cuts that down even more, because the early notification will let crews clear the snow faster.

"It's an important part of not just connecting Canada from coast to coast, it's an important part of the economy," said Bird.

Canadian forces soldier CBC Lieutenant Owen Thompson is part of the detachment from Manitoba who has arrived in B.C. for avalanche control. (Bob Keating/CBC)

CANADIAN MILITARY INVOLVEMENT

The new detection system is just one of many measures to reduce avalanche risk in the pass. Another involves the Canadian military.

For almost six decades, military gun detachments have blasted Howitzer shells at the mountainsides in Rogers Pass to bring the snow down after big storms.

Two detachments from Manitoba have just arrived in the pass to begin the yearly bombardments.

With new funding, Yukon avalanche forecast returns to full service levels "They tell me what direction to point my cannon in and we'll get what they need done," said Lieutenant Owen Thompson.

The Rogers Pass mission is the longest running in Canadian military history. And this year, the Howitzers will operate alongside high tech.

Canadia forces avalanche cannon CBC The Canadian military has been in Rogers Pass since 1962 blasting Howitzer shells at the mountainside. (Parks Canada)

Original story by Bob Keating, published on CBC.ca

SCIENCE BEHIND: COULD YOUR VOICE ACTUALLY START AN AVALANCHE?

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