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Parks launches new avalanche bulletin

Today, thanks to work spearheaded by Parks Canada and co-operation between Alberta and B.C. governing bodies, backcountry users have new, timely and better avalanche information at hand. As of Wednesday (Nov.

Today, thanks to work spearheaded by Parks Canada and co-operation between Alberta and B.C. governing bodies, backcountry users have new, timely and better avalanche information at hand.

As of Wednesday (Nov. 9), avalanche bulletins at the Parks Canada website (www.parkscanada.gc.ca) and the Canadian Avalanche Centre (www.avalanche.ca) feature a quicker to consult, graphics-based, colour-coded format which indicates avalanche danger information at different elevations, slope alignment and the chance and expected size of possible avalanche sites.

As well, the new bulletins include terrain and travel advice and will feature an archive system as data is collected into the future.

Parks Canada operates a full-service avalanche risk control program in the mountain parks and spends approximately $1.7 million annually on avalanche-related activities in Western Canada, including highway avalanche control, a 24/7 capacity search and rescue program, and regular avalanche bulletins in both official languages.

The new bulletin system was developed under the guidance of Mountain Risk Specialist Grant Statham, a guide who has worked in the mountains for 25 years and is a specialist isn visitor safety programs and avalanche safety systems.

“It’s been a lot of work, but I’m very excited about this,” he said. “The theory has been in place for four or five years, but we’ve been working really hard on it for the past 12 months.

“Public avalanche bulletins have been changing quite a bit, but they have been fairly lengthy, text-based descriptions, which means a short bulletin is often about 400 words.

“With a younger demographic and people with smart phones, they’re not going to read a 600-word report. The new site has less text and more graphics. It’s more to the point, right to the point.

“If we have someone’s attention for only one or two minutes, we need to say something quickly.”

In all, Parks has put about $350,000 into the project, at the heart of which is AvalX software, which Statham said is the exciting part. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. It’s a real communication product and a big step forward.

“We’re also really excited that it has a mobile view, it can be used with Blackberry, iPhone and Android and a really big step is that people will be able to access remote weather stations now available to the public.” Bulletins are also available via Facebook and Twitter.

Nearly real-time information as to wind direction, speed, snow depth and temperature will be available.

One of the keys to the new bulletins’ usefulness and user-friendly format is the adoption of symbols such as a mountain icon to show hazards at different elevations, as well as compasses and gauges.

“The symbols were built last year and were tested for comprehension,” said Statham. “Tests showed a greater than 90 per cent comprehension rate.”

Colour coding matches an international danger scale launched in the U.S. last year, said Statham, with green indicating low risk areas and black indicating extreme risk.

“The bulletins are more straightforward and understandable than in the past,” he said.

The launch of the new bulletins is timely, as there is already 100 centimetres of snow in Rogers Pass and people are skiing.

Work was done in association with the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke, B.C., and with Kananaskis Country and provincial bodies.

“It’s a big step in Canada, we’ve been talking about this for a decade,” said Statham. “For us in the avalanche business, it’s a bit of a Holy Grail.

“It will be really handy for teaching avalanche courses, too. We don’t have to show how to use different bulletins now.”

The cost was a big investment for Parks Canada, said Statham. “But reducing risk is our number one priority. And if you understand the information available, it also makes for a better day.

“I’m told the avalanche bulletins are one of the most-visited sections of the Parks Canada website. This new information is cutting edge, for sure, and I like the use of public money in this way. The information will be shared and everybody in Canada will be able to view the exact same information.”

Statham says European nations and the U.S. are already showing interest in the new bulletins and, as information is compiled in a data base, he believes a scientific gold mine of weather station and avalanche-related information will be available in the future.


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