University's ISIA launches to web map displaying daily avalanche danger levels

The Institute for Spatial Information and Analysis at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment has released a new interactive web-map designed to display regional daily avalanche danger levels.

This new web-map allows users to explore and zoom while seeing daily avalanche danger forecasts draped over a selection of base maps.  The site also allows users to scroll back through the previous week of forecasts to examine how avalanche dangers have been changing over time.  This project is a collaborative effort between the Institute and the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle, and has been supported by funds from the nonprofit group Friends of NWAC.

Michael Medler, who directs the Institute for Spatial Information and Analysis, began working on avalanche-hazard visualization projects in 2004 after several Western Washington University students were buried overnight by an avalanche near Mount Baker that claimed the life of one of the students.  Medler personally knew the student who was killed, and it spurred him to begin research on how such tragedies could be averted in the future.

“After that, I began working with my Geographic Information Systems students to develop maps that would help people understand the avalanche hazards in our local mountains.  Each year several students would really latch on to the avalanche projects because the issue had so much meaning for them,” Medler said.

NWAC produces daily avalanche forecasts for about a dozen different zones in the State of Washington and the Mount Hood area of Oregon.  For several years, these forecasts have been displayed in a graphical compass-rose format that lets a user see the avalanche dangers for specific elevations and directional aspects.

The new web-map takes these regional forecasts and displays the same information spatially, allowing back country travelers to zoom into specific regions and examine the forecast avalanche danger, but prevents users from zooming in too closely to assure that they understand that the forecasts are regional and not site specific.

Mark Moore from NWAC said that it is very important that the users understand that even though these maps display the hazard danger for specific points on the map, the forecasts themselves are regional in nature.

“We do not want to imply that regional forecasts can be slope specific in their accuracy. They cannot, and should not be used for slope scale decisions, which should be left to the back country user,” he said.

The new interactive avalanche hazard map can be seen at: http://www.wwu.edu/huxley/spatial/maps/nwac/.

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