New continent-wide avalanche danger scale unveiled

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice (left) shakes hands with Ian Tomm, executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Centre during the presentation of the new North American Avalanche Danger Scale that was unveiled in Calgary on Wednesday. It looks good and should work well but questions persist regarding who's going to pay for it. Photo courtesy of Environment Canada

By David F. Rooney

Environment Minister Jim Prentice has unveiled a new continent-wide avalanche danger scale that will make it easier for skiers and snowmobilers to assess the risks of the terrain they’re entering, but questions persist about how much it will cost to implement and who will pay for it.

The project, led by Parks Canada with participation by Canadian Avalanche Centre, the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, United State Forest Service and the Colorado Avalanche Information Centre, establishes a single North American standard for an avalanche warning system and provides the first international standard for the use of icons in avalanche warnings. (You can see a sample of the avalanche warnings below.)

“This is the most comprehensive and complete avalanche warning system designed to date,” Prentice said at an event in Calgary where the new continent-wide system was unveiled. “While we will never completely eliminate the risk, this initiative provides backcountry users with another tool to use in conjunction with specific equipment and training to help minimize those risks.”

Ian Tomm, executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Centre the new, five-level scale is a major improvement in the way that avalanche risks are communicated to the public.

“We really set out to bring clarity to the complexity of the language we had been using to describe avalanche risks,” he said in an interview form Calgary. “It’s going to go a long way towards helping people make the right decision.”

The language currently used is complex and has, over the years, prompted many complaints from people who access the CAC’s bulletins, Tomm said, adding that will change when when the new system is implemented next winter. However, he wonders about who will pay the cost of implementing the new system.

The CAC has a very tight budget — just $800,000, about of which comes from the federal, BC and Alberta government — and Tomm said “the cost does concern us a little bit.”

This is the new five-level avalanche warning system unveiled in Calgary by federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice. Please click on the image to see a larger version in PDF format. Image courtesy of Parks Canada