World-first avalanche prediction technology could save hundreds of lives each year

World-first avalanche prediction technology developed in his spare time by ANSTO scientist Dr Warwick Payten could save hundreds of lives each year. Heli-skiing expert Roddy Mackenzie and retired ANSTO physicist John Tendys collaborated with Dr Payten on the project.

The technology takes the form of a special probe called a penetrometer. This is pushed into the snow where it gathers data such as force, acceleration and temperature via micro-electronic machine sensors that send the information back to a pocket computer to create two and three dimensional images.

“By understanding and visualising the snow’s structure we believe that we will be able to accurately predict if an avalanche is likely,” explained Dr Payten. “Following analysis, expedition organisers, climbers, skiers and others can then be notified that an area is not safe.

“Until now, only the United States Army in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research used this kind of technology. However their technology requires an electric motor and tripod to drive it into the snow. It is at least six times heavier and much more expensive at around US$30,000, compared to US$4000. Ours also collects data such as temperature which they don’t take into account.” Dr Payten said.

In a paper presented at the recent International Symposium on Snow and Monitoring of Avalanche in India, Dr Payten’s collaborator, Mr McKenzie, compared the snow probe to other prediction systems.

“Current on-slope analysis systems are slow and relatively inaccurate,” said Mr McKenzie. “They also involve digging for metres before being able to tell anything about the snow’s stability. Our probe is dropped straight into the snow without digging and gives us results that are about eighty per cent accurate.

Dr Payten said that while the technology was still being developed, the probe was already proving popular with universities researching avalanches.

“Avalanches are the number one concern for companies operating mountain expeditions like climbing or extreme sports such as heli-skiing. The data provided gives expedition leaders a visual guide to where problems lie and where the snow structure is weak, which we believe is a big step forward toward a safer expedition environment,” concluded Dr Payten.

For more information on the snow probe and heli-skiing visit


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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