How Montana Became Central to Avalanche Research

Many scientific disciplines converge on a shared goal

Montana mountains
Montana's mountains are home to a lot of research these days.
Tayla Bundschuh/Unsplash

Even remotely, avalanches are a horrific sight to witness. They can also be paradoxical. In a 2019 article about undergoing avalanche safety training, writer Heidi Julavits writes that her instructor told her and her classmates that “by taking an avalanche-safety course, we had statistically increased our chances of being killed in an avalanche.” Avalanches are unpredictable and often deadly — making the need to study them paramount.

A new article in Atlas Obscura by Bay Stephens explores how Montana has become a kind of locus for scientists studying the causes and prevention of avalanches. The state is known for its distinctive mountains and for its allure to skiers; it’s not hard to see why scientists would be drawn there.

Their research can take different forms, including forecasting avalanches and studying why people interact with them the way they do. From exploring the behavior of skiers to examining the structure of snow, the scientists profiled in the article come from different disciplines but share a goal of making mountains safer.

While Stephens’s article chronicles very different forms of research, they share the quality of being work-intensive in their needs and wide-ranging in their scope. Theirs is work that can have a massive impact on saving people’s lives. In the United States this season, 26 people have died as a result of avalanches so far, an increase over last season. It’s a sobering reminder of the hazards that can come from mountains in winter.

Subscribe here for our free daily newsletter.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.