Normally, professor Michael Medler focuses his research on fires in forests, but when a student he knew died in an avalanche, his thoughts turned to snow in the mountains.
In December 2003, three students from Western Washington University were snowshoeing toward Artist Point by Mount Baker Ski Area when an avalanche buried them overnight. One student wriggled free and found help the following morning, and one miraculously survived being buried for more than 24 hours, but 21-year-old Jacqueline Eckstrom was found dead several feet below the surface.
Medler, who is an associate professor of environmental studies at Western's Huxley College of the Environment, decided to put his mapping expertise to work finding ways to reduce the risk of such tragedies in the future.
The result of his effort went live a few weeks ago - a new avalanche-danger website with maps for the Cascade and Olympic mountains in Washington and for the Mount Hood area in Oregon.
The maps, which are updated daily, use five colors to convey the level of avalanche danger: green for low danger, yellow for moderate, orange for considerable, red for high and black for extreme.
The colors, and their locations on the maps, reflect data gathered by the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle. The center collects information on weather and snow conditions for its own avalanche reports for 13 regions, from Mount Baker to Mount Hood and from the Olympics to the eastern slopes of the Cascades.
The center's website features written reports on avalanche conditions in those regions, plus a circular "danger rose" graphic for each region. The graphic uses the five colors to indicate avalanche risk by elevation and compass direction.
For example, a rose might show orange, or "considerable," danger generally at 3,000- to 7,000-foot elevation, but with red, or "high," danger in, say, northeast-facing slopes above 6,000 feet.
The rose conveys important information, but not on maps of Northwest mountains, themselves.
That's what Medler's website does, and it has raised questions about whether the maps will encourage backcountry users to exercise more caution, or give them a false sense of security about avalanche risks where they plan to snow, snowboard, snowshoe or ride their snowmobile.
Medler knows the data from the Seattle center is regional-level information, not a precise guide to when and where an avalanche will occur.
"Avalanches are very complex," he said.
A high-danger area might not have an avalanche, but a lower-danger area might, depending on changing temperatures, winds, precipitation and avalanche triggers, whether natural ones or ones caused by people in the backcountry.
"Terrain is really important in what's going on," Medler said. "It's really about people trying to understand their local terrain."
On the plus side, people who aren't inclined to read the lengthy reports posted by the Seattle center might be more attracted to the new maps, said Stefan Freelan, a geographic information system specialist at Huxley. And the maps might encourage people to plan alternate routes in the mountains to avoid high-risk areas, he said.
Perhaps it's best to regard the Huxley maps as the latest version of better things to come. A goal for Medler and his students is to make the maps accessible for more mobile devices. Right now, it only works with Android phones.
Medler envisions a time when people in the backcountry could use their phones to send on-the-spot reports and photos about snow conditions and avalanches. With enough people doing that, the maps could provide much more detail about conditions at, say, Table Mountain or Shuksan Arm, two popular backcountry destinations by Mount Baker.
Even with more details, however, predicting avalanches will still not carry a guarantee. And for some backcountry users, that's acceptable.
"There's always going to be some people to whom danger is part of the appeal," Medler said.
The avalanche-danger website from Huxley College of the Environment can be accessed two ways:
go to the Huxley page on spatial maps.
go to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center site and click on "GIS Danger Rose Display" in the upper-left corner.
Reach DEAN KAHN email@example.com or call 715-2291.