For decades, Dr. Bruce Jamieson has led a team of researchers at the Applied Snow & Avalanche Research Centre (ASARC) at the University of Calgary. He’s published several books on avalanche safety that are used as student manuals by Avalanche Canada.
Earlier this year he entered semi-retirement after spending 30 years studying snow and avalanches. This Saturday, he will be giving a talk at the Revelstoke Library on a few of the topics he’s studied over the years.
The Review reached him by phone last week to find out a bit more about his work over the years, and what he’ll be discussing in Revelstoke.
Revelstoke Review: How did you get into the avalanche industry?
Dr. Bruce Jamieson: My undergraduate degree was in math and physics. I was leaning towards desk jobs. At that stage I wasn’t interested in a desk job so I talked to a bunch of outdoor schools and eventually got interested in avalanches. I worked for a couple of different ski areas on their avalanche control programs and then came to Calgary for graduate school.
Do you remember what your first research looked at?
It was the tensile strength of snow. In the upper layers of the snow pack, avalanches release as snow slabs. Slab avalanches in the upper layers of the snow pack release as a unit. They are most of the avalanches that cause damage to people and property. The strength of the slabs are related to how wide the avalanches are, whether they spread a long distance across a slope or not. I was interested in measuring the strength of the upper layers of the snow pack. There was a technique that had been used a little bit. I think I improved the technique for my masters degree. I got a good data set and was able to relate that to the actual width avalanches tend to release.
How did you start ASARC?
I did my Masters and PhD at University of Calgary separated by some time as a research associate under Dr. Colin Johnson. There was a series of grants there jointly funded by the federal government and industry. After (Dr. Johnson) retired, I started to be the lead on these series of research projects and started to supervise graduate students. The name ASARC didn’t come along until quite a bit later. I was halfway through my active time with supervising graduate students before we adopted the name ASARC, but it’s reasonable to extend it back earlier.
Canada has a long history of avalanche science, going back to when the railway was built through Rogers Pass in the 1880s. How do you feel ASARC has contributed to that legacy of snow science research?
We’re certainly on the very practical side. I think there’s valuable research that goes right through, from the very practical to the very theoretical. I value the theoretical side even though it’s not my line of research.
On that spectrum we’re quite far over to the practical side and that’s because of our working relationship with industry. We had substantial funding from industry from the early stage. They were quite wonderful to work with but they asked tough questions like how am I going to use the results of your research.
That really fitted well with my practical orientation. I worked in avalanche forecasting and control for six years. That really suited me to look at the applied, practical aspect of avalanches. Industry worked with me to develop the research topics we addressed.
What were some of the bigger studies you did?
Snowpack tests were pretty central. The compression test, which we didn’t develop, but it was an obscure little test done by a few folks at Parks Canada and then we made a few minor changes. We were in the right time and place to popularize it and it’s probably the most widely used test in North America now.”
There’s the propagation saw test. It’s not well suited to the weekend recreationalists but it has applications to the persons working with avalanches — forecasters and control workers and ski guides.
There’s also our work on how various weak layers form on the surface and how they change in behaviour and how they’re so slow to change after they get buried. The layers are facets, surface hoar and crusts, so how they form and getting that knowledge at a very practical level so the practitioners can use them. Then how those layers slowly change and eventually stabilize, but they’re famously slow to stabilize once buried in the snowpack.
Where do you see the future of avalanche research going?
I’m quite excited about this program at Simon Fraser University that Dr. Pascal Haegeli is leading. They’re taking a fairly different approach than the ASARC program took but I think it’s going to be really constructive and really helpful work.
What is that work?
They’re doing a variety of work. They’re coming at terrain from GPS tracking. They can see how people actually use terrain. They’re quantifying terrain so you can put it into models and see how people make decisions. They’re looking at the decision science and how people make decisions and how you can structure that.
Pascal has worked with a bunch of practitioners in Canada in their conceptual model for avalanche hazard forecasting. They’re building on that, so it’s really beneficial to the way we forecast avalanches and make decisions.
It’s not going out in the snow and digging square holes like the ASARC program was so famous for, but I think it’s going to be really beneficial to avalanche practitioners and recreationalists in Canada.
What will you be talking about in Revelstoke?
Snow pack tests is one topic. And vulnerability — what are the odds of surviving an avalanche once you get caught? There’s been some fairly serious errors there in the way we’ve been understanding that.
Who’s this talk geared for? The general public or snow science geeks?
I originally thought I would be speaking to the general public. I guess Kendra (from the library) went to the CAA and talked to a few people there and they picked some topics from my list. They are fairly technical topics but I will try to reach as broad an audience as possible. I think people should be backcountry skiers and snowmobilers that will get more out of it.
Bruce Jamison speaks at the Revelstoke Libray on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m.