Report on the Afternoon Session
The presentations of the speakers during the afternoon session demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of our efforts to find the answer to the riddle of the snow avalanche. On the positive side it is comforting to know that we still have the talent represented by these speakers directing their intellect and experience at this very difficult problem. On the other hand, in spite of the efforts of people such as Peter Schaerer, Ron Perla and Sverre Engen, we are really not much closer to understanding avalanches now than we were twenty years ago. Sure, some significant results have been achieved and progress has been made, but in many instances we're still arguing about the same things we were a long time ago. Progress comes in small pieces, usually, and patience is necessary.
Peter Schaerer's talk was particularly interesting in the sense that his wish list did reflect the desires of many researchers and forecasters who study avalanches. He succeeded in pointing out that studying avalanches is a very knotty task indeed. In spite of the considerable technology at hand we still cannot, for instance, see into the middle of an avalanche to determine what is going on. The technology might actually exist to do this, but unfortunately Uncle Sam isn't going to give the snow and avalanche community the funds to go about it. Things still have to be done on a shoestring, at least here in Canada and the United States, and I suspect that will remain the situation for some time to come.
Bob Smith's presentation was also very illuminating. Here is a world-class scientist who has not been involved in snow and avalanche research. He made it obvious that our field can benefit from new perspectives provided by disciplines other than our own. Now, many of you may not have agreed with Bob's thoughts on such things as how to measure slope stability, but it does provide food for thought and does stimulate many of us into considering alternative methods to studying avalanches. We do need more of this interaction with other disciplines, be they theoretical physics, geology, engineering, or whatever. New instrumentation and experimental techniques can provide us with exciting opportunities to do better field work, and analogies from such fields as geology, earthquake engineering or geophysics may give us better insight into avalanches and forecasting.
Ron Perla also made the point that we need a sense of humor if this avalanche riddle is not to drive us crazy. At times we can become so wrapped up in our work that we lose perspective regarding our abilities to solve the world's problems. In reality we can't solve too many of them, but if we add a little to what others are doing, that should be enough. Ron certainly has done that in spades.
Finally, there was Sverre Engen, (editors note: Sverre was one of Alta's early snow rangers and the inventor of the ski film genre that now gives us the likes of Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore. He is the brother of Alf.) someone I feel unfortunate to not have known and worked with. His film presentation made it abundantly clear that we are all indebted to the likes of the Engen brothers, Monty Atwater, Ed LaChapelle and Binx Sandahl for the pioneering work they performed during their heyday. They certainly seemed to have had a great deal of fun while studying avalanches.
In conclusion, we need to pay tribute to these people and others such as John Montagne, Pete Martinelli and others whose careers in snow and Avalanche research and forecasting are coming to a close. Their contributions were significant and lasting, and they have laid the basis on which the rest of us can build. This field is changing in response to new and emerging technologies. Possibly the next twenty years will see and increased rate of improvement in our abilities, but I can't imagine it being as much fun as what I saw in Sverre's movies.