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Reassessing a troublesome fact of mountain life: Avalanches in Glacier National Park

January 1, 2006


For the past decade, our U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research team has rummaged through Glacier National Park’s archives looking for records of snow avalanches. Our searches have paid off. We have found photographs that show snow avalanches blocking progress during the annual spring opening of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, ranger logs that describe cabins and telephone lines destroyed by avalanches, and superintendents’ reports that recount avalanche accidents that killed employees or visitors. Recently, we have combined these historical sources with field studies to investigate whether snow avalanches in the park may be more cyclical than random and as much an ecological process as a natural hazard. Our ongoing research in Montana has yielded relevant information for park managers elsewhere who deal with avalanche threats to park infrastructure and for ecologists seeking a better understanding of how mountain ecosystems function.


Our research has focused on two transportation corridors: the Going-to-the-Sun Road that bisects the center of the park, and John F. Stevens Canyon, at the park’s southwest corner (fig. 1). The Going-to-the-Sun Road is the park’s most visited attraction; deep snow and avalanches force the road’s closure each winter, and in spring, park crews dig it out using bulldozers and other heavy equipment (fig. 2). Springtime avalanches can bury workers or push equipment off the road and over cliffs (figs. 3a and 3b), as happened in 1953, when two workers died. Our research started with a study of how interannual variations in snowfall and avalanches affect the road opening. The initial study helped park managers predict and plan for the road opening in spring and respond to the many topical questions from park visitors and locals. More recent studies have focused on determining the conditions that create springtime avalanches, which are a poorly understood aspect of the avalanche phenomenon.


Publication Year 2006
Title Reassessing a troublesome fact of mountain life: Avalanches in Glacier National Park
Authors Blase Reardon, Daniel B. Fagre
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Park Science
Index ID 70160233
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center