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Research / Discovery

A guru of avalanches

December 22, 2011
by Paul Miller

Sometimes a passion for the outdoors translates exceptionally well into a successful career.
Witness Ethan Greene (M.S. '99, Ph.D. '07), who grew up in Boulder, Colo., and lived in Telluride for a time, skiing in the Central Rockies and rock climbing as often as possible.

The guru in the Never Summer Mountains. Photo by Brian Gardel.<br />Main page photo: Greene examining snow structure near a human-triggered avalanche on Mines Peak near Berthoud Pass. Photo by Scott Toepfer. From recreation to serious business

Greene now is director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a program of the Colorado Geological Survey, and leads a team of experts who help keep Coloradans safe from avalanches.

“I became interested in avalanches from a purely recreational perspective, in an effort to keep myself safe,” Greene says. “The more I learned about avalanches, the more interested I became, and that helped jump-start my career in higher education.” While pursuing his undergraduate degree, he worked at Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana in the ski patrol, then moved on to study meteorology and mathematics the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

His degree from Utah, however, didn’t mean the end of his academic career. “My mentors convinced me to go to grad school,” he says. “I applied to the atmospheric science program at CSU, found some people there who were interested in mesoscale meteorology and snow in complex terrain, and I studied with them.

“I liked what I saw from the beginning. CSU has a larger and much more diverse program than other universities. There are few departments in the world like the atmospheric science program at CSU. The level of expertise and the quality of people – whether students, professors, visiting scientists, or staff – is really impressive. I got an incredible amount out of it.”

Top-notch researcher

A snowboarder-triggered avalanche near Uneva Peak in Arapaho National Forest, January 2011. Photo by Ethan Greene.“Ethan was a top-notch student and excellent researcher,” says Karl Birkeland, acting director and avalanche scientist at the USDA Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “He was meticulous in his work and sought the top people in his specialized field for their expertise at CSU and other places. He also received NSF funding to work at the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos.”

For two summers as a student, Greene worked in Switzerland for three months, then traveled back to Colorado to work on his Ph.D. “I was bouncing around a lot, meeting a lot of really interesting people and seeing different viewpoints on how to approach avalanches from both a theoretical and applied science perspective,” he says. In pursuing his studies, Greene spent a good part of his time looking at the microstructure of snow and its metamorphism in very large freezers in Colorado and Switzerland.

Plenty on his plate

Greene started as director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 2005, two years before he finished his Ph.D. in Geosciences. The primary mission of the center is to promote safety to recreation, industry, and transportation in Colorado through forecasting and education programs.

“The CAIC is a clearinghouse of information,” says Greene. “We’re different than other avalanche centers because we do both recreation and transportation forecasting for all the state and federal highways as well as providing services for people who enjoy the backcountry. We look at avalanches from a broad perspective, then take information that’s applicable for each area and try to present it in a way that specific user groups can digest and use.”

Late season, big snow
CAIC forecaster Scott Toepfer investigates a human-triggered avalanche near Uneva Peak in January 2011. Photo by Ethan Greene.

Greene says the heavy, late-season snow in the 2010-11 winter season caused some notably large avalanches because of the extreme mass of the snow. “When avalanches let loose, they were really big and quite destructive,” he says. “These avalanches were different than what we typically see in Colorado because the weak layer was surface hoar, a kind of frost, rather than weak snow near the ground.

“Seven people lost their lives in avalanches within Colorado last year, which is above the 10-year average of five. Although the average number of people killed in avalanches as been decreasing in Colorado over the past 20 years, this is the second year in a row with above-average avalanche deaths.  

"But, although we have much more terrain here than in avalanche-prone areas in Europe, the United States typically has fewer fatalities.”

Greene has been caught in several avalanches over the years. “Getting caught in avalanches is not a good idea, but if you work with avalanches a lot, it can happen,” he says. “Even recreationists who spend a lot of time pushing their limits in avalanche terrain shouldn’t be shocked if they get caught.

“Once you figure out the avalanche potential, it’s a matter of risk tolerance, risk exposure, and the consequences of being caught. Different people will weigh these factors differently, but all factors need to be considered to make effective decisions about avalanches.”

More on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center