How important is snow density for survival underneath an avalanche?

Experimental study conducted with test subjects and an artificial avalanche

2014/03/14, Bolzano, Italy: The snow density may play a much greater role than previously assumed in the ability of a person to survive avalanche burial. Researchers believe that the snow density could exert an even stronger influence than the size of the available air pocket in the snow. In order to investigate this theory, researchers at the EURAC Bolzano, Innsbruck Medical University, the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos and the Institute for Sports Science of the University of Innsbruck conducted an experimental study with test subjects and an artificial avalanche in the Puster Valley (South Tyrol) between January and March 2014.

IMG 0720 kleinIn earlier studies, the researchers had observed that a person buried in an avalanche consisting of dry, loosely bonded snow can survive longer than a person engulfed by an avalanche consisting of wet, dense snow, who is likely to be asphyxiated sooner because less air penetrates the snowpack. These observations prompted the question addressed by the recent study: Exactly how great is the influence of snow density on the ability of a person to survive an avalanche burial if he has access to an air pocket in the snow and is able to breathe?

The research team restricted their study to an air pocket having a uniform volume, to a consistent temperature, and to twelve volunteers who underwent testing several times, on each occasion in different snow conditions. For the experiments, the researchers created an artificial avalanche in which they punched out a standardised air pocket for each test subject. The twelve volunteers were members of the mountain rescue teams of the South Tyrol Alpine Club and the Excise Service, and medical students from Austria and Italy. In order to guarantee their safety, the test subjects were not actually buried in the avalanche, but seated closely adjacent to the wall of snow.

For the purpose of investigating the relationship between the survival time and different snow densities, the tests were conducted in three successive cycles in January, February and March 2014.

For the tests, the volunteers breathed directly into the prepared air pocket for 30 minutes. During this 30-minute period the researchers monitored numerous parameters that are relevant to survival, including the oxygen and carbon dioxide content of the volunteers' blood as well as in the air pocket, and the oxygen saturation of the brain, along with other key body functions such as pulse and blood pressure.

In addition, the effort required to breathe in the air pocket was measured at the beginning and end of a 30-minute period. The measured values enabled the researchers to draw conclusions concerning the relationship between the snow density and survival in the event of an avalanche burial. Study project leaders Hermann Brugger and Giacomo Strapazzon of the EURAC Institute for Alpine Emergency Medicine, and Peter Paal of Innsbruck Medical University, described the rationale behind the test method.

IMG 0615 kleinThey said that the tests simulated a complex system, namely the transportation of vital oxygen into the air pocket through snow. The researchers were seeking to establish the relationship between oxygen diffusion into the air pocket and snow density, they explained, because the survival time in snow might be longer than previously assumed. In order to create a control mechanism, volunteers breathed into airtight plastic bags, eliminating the possibility of atmospheric oxygen reaching the air pocket. The control experiment was terminated after two to five minutes because of the lack of oxygen. In contrast, the volunteers breathing in air pockets in loosely bonded snow, having the same capacity, were able to continue breathing easily for 30 minutes. This illustrates the enormous variability of the survival time, depending on the density of the snow surrounding the air pocket.

In relation to the medical data, Jürg Schweizer and his research colleagues at the WSL for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos analysed the snow density and the properties of the snow surrounding the air pockets used in the tests. They took samples from each of the punched-out air pockets before and after each test, for instance, in order to establish whether the structure of the snow had been altered by the volunteers breathing into the pockets. The researchers also took deep-frozen snow samples of the air pockets back to Davos and analysed the snow structure there in the laboratory by computed tomography (CT). For the first time, moreover, they examined the air permeability of the snow in order to establish how much oxygen can pass through the snow into the air pocket. For this purpose, they extracted air from the air pocket and then measured how quickly the pressure returned from below atmospheric to normal.

The research team are now fairly confident that the snow density could play a greater role than assumed thus far in the ability of a person to survive an avalanche burial. The results of the study are expected to be available within a year. They will be especially useful for estimating the time available for rescuing and attending to people who are buried by avalanches, and for facilitating the development of new safety equipment for ski tourers, freeriders and rescue teams. In conclusion, according to the researchers, the survival curve in the event of an avalanche burial during the six months of winter is probably subject to greater fluctuations than assumed to date depending on the prevailing snow density.


Thursday, 06 March 2014 14:50

New UIAA Standard Developed for Water Repellant Ropes

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10 Years of Reserch and Testing

UIAA Developed A New UIAA-Label

2014/03/06, Bern, Switzerland: A new standard for water repellent ropes has been approved by the UIAA Safety Commission after almost 10 years of research and testing.

Risk of Avalanches is Often Underrated by Skiers and Backcountry Skiers

11/22/2012, Vienna, Austria: According to a study of the Johannes Kepler University Linz and the University for ground culture (Boku) 40% of the requested persons rate the risk of an avalanche wrong and show a high readiness to assume risk.

Monday, 29 October 2012 00:00

Greenpeace Study to Toxic Substances In Outdoor Clothing

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Greenpeace Study to Toxic Substances in Outdoor Clothing

Targeted research on Perflorinated Chemicals (PFC) in membranes and layers

10/29/2012, Hamburg, Germany: Greenpeace Germany published a report regarding the results of their research on toxics in outdoor clothing. 14 products, especially waterproof hard-shell jackets of different Outdoor-manufacturers were tested with a focus on Perflorinated chemicals (PFC) and perflorinated acids.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012 00:00

RWTH Aachen In Search Of Climbers For Scientific Survey

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Technical University Aachen In Search of Climbers For Participation in Survey

Sports medical online survey to sport climbing

12/08/15, Aachen, Berlin: The institute for work and social medicine of the RWTH Aachen (Rheinisch Westfälische Technische Hochschule) is in search of participants for several online surveys, especially sport climbers, who can participate in diverse questioning.

Mammut In Search Of A Female Mountaineer For A Photo Shooting

Mammut is looking for a female mountaineer

12/07/19: Seon, Switzerland: the Swiss company Mammut is searching a female mountaineer  for their new campaign photo. The shooting is planned to happen at Cleopatra’s needle in Bergell. The shooting will be included in a documentation of the "Schweizer Fernsehen" (SF) about the photographer Robert Bösch.

Saturday, 07 July 2012 00:00

Berlin: Construction Of The DAV Climbing Center Permitted

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Construction Of The German Alpine Club Berlin Climbing Hall Can Go On

12/07/07, Berlin: On fifth of July the Higher Administrative Court changed  the decision of the Administrative Court Berlin that bound the District Administration to stop the construction of a climbing hall of the DAV Section Berlin (German Alpine Club).

Berlin: Administration Court Stops Construction of The German Alpine Club (DAV) Climbing Center

05/02/12: Berlin: According to an urgent decision of the administrative court Berlin chamber 20 the German Alpine Club Section Berlin is not allowed to build or use a climbing center in Berlin-Mitte.

Thursday, 26 April 2012 00:00

Mountain Rescue: New Emergency App

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The County Government and Mountain Rescue Tirol Publish an Emergency App For Smartphones

April 2012: Tirol, Austria:

The Mountain Rescue and the county government Tirol have developed a new smartphone application. Emergencies and accidents can be reported speechless to the coordination center of the Mountain Rescue Tirol. The app therefor sends the GPS position in the moment of the report that can be used immediately by the Mountain Rescue to accelerate the rescue.

Climbing Wall "Monte Balkon" In Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Temporary Closed Because of Safety Issues

03/10/12: Berlin: As the Alpin Club Berlin e.V. section of the german alpine association (DAV) imparts, the climbing wall "Monte Balkon" in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen is currently closed.

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