What We Learned from VSSW 2020

October 2, yyyy

ISSW took to the web for fall 2020 to continue its annual tradition of snow science education with the Virtual Snow Science Workshop. Here's what we learned at VSSW 2020.


Due to the travel complications inflicted by COVID-19, this year’s International Snow Science Workshop, held every other year in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, took to a virtual platform between October 4th and 6th this year—dubbed the Virtual Snow Science Workshop (VSSW)—to provide snow science professionals and other interested parties with the opportunity to gather and discuss important advancements in the study of snow and avalanches for winter 2020/21.  Here's what we learned at VSSW 2020.

The roster of guest speakers and science experts at VSSW 2020 was impressive. 14 experts presented, including personalities like social scientist and risk management researcher Pascal Haegeli; Liz Riggs Meder, the Director of Recreation Programs at AIARE; research engineer Laura Maguire; and Jordy Hendrikx, associate professor and Director of the Snow & Avalanche Laboratory in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. Topics ranged from discussions on decision-making in complex terrain to the difficulties of backcountry communication and identifying hazards. Also included were panel discussions on integrating snowmobilers into avalanche communities, and the role mentorship plays within the world of avalanche safety and snow science.

Numerous professionals looking to brush up and stay current on the latest research in snow safety were also in attendance. One such individual was BCA ambassador Sarah Carpenter, AMGA-certified guide, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute. Carpenter is a frequent attendee of snow science workshops and says of the reason for her annual presence at workshops like the ISSW, “It brings researchers and practitioners together. The sharing of research and practices across a variety of industries - guiding, ski patrolling, forecasting, research - is incredibly valuable. I attend snow science workshops to stay current. There are always new and different ways to approach communication and decision making in the backcountry. There is always new research on avalanche mechanics, mapping, and a whole variety of topics. I think that having a common language is important.”

The main focus of VSSW 2020 she noted, “The theme that stood out to me in the VSSW was communication. There was a great talk about communicating risk to the public and how to make avalanche bulletins more effective, as well as a talk about communicating probabilities. There were also talks that covered team communication and effective strategies to improve communication in complex environments, as well as building systems for better, more consistent communication, and effective mentorship in the snow and avalanche industry.”

Also in attendance was Backcountry Access co-founder and vice president of marketing, Bruce Edgerly, who was partial to the in-person format of ISSW, but who appreciated the information presented in a virtual event. “I used to like the avalanche workshops because I like the people there so I love mingling with the crowd between talks (and at happy hour). But I’m also a bit of an egghead so I like to hear what the academics have to say,” Edgerly commented about what attracts him to these events. “The regional workshops are nice because it gives a chance for ‘line’ patrollers and other avalanche workers to see the state-of-the-art in snow science. In the past, only the directors of a snow safety operation went to the ISSW. The regional SAW’s have made these presentations more accessible to the practitioners. And the virtual workshops are making them even more accessible.”

At this year’s VSSW 2020, Edgerly spoke of how climate change played a role in this year’s proceedings. “Ben Reuter and Sascha Bellaire were right on regarding the influence of climate change on avalanche problems,” noted Edgerly. “They had a striking graphic on how snow levels are expected to change in the Alps between now and 2100 with an increase of 1.5 degrees C: Less snow at lower elevations, shorter and less frequent avalanche cycles, and increases in severe weather. Wet snow cycles will come earlier at higher elevations in the inner Alpine regions,” he explained of the major take-away lessons from Reuter and Bellaire’s talk.

The global pandemic, a phenomenon that directly affected the format of this year’s VSSW 2020 workshop, took a back seat to other snow and avalanche safety topics, making only a small appearance in Outside correspondent Devon O’Neil’s talk about an Ophir, Colo.-based slide that occurred last spring.

“COVID played a large role, as the ISSW was held virtually rather than in-person. The committee did a great job putting together an interesting and engaging program on a virtual program, and hopefully next year, there will be an in-person ISSW,” Carpenter mentioned about the 2020 format, but continued, “There wasn’t a lot of conversation about mitigating risk during COVID. There was a talk about a rescue last spring, during the height of COVID. We all recognize that how we operate this winter will likely be different and there is anticipation that use is going to increase this winter. There wasn’t a deep dive into how operations will shift.”

But of the overall importance of snow science gatherings, Carpenter remains supportive and pleased with ISSW and VSSW 2020. “We continue to learn more about the science of snow each year, and we also continue refining how to communicate risk and hazard to the public, between partners, and between teams. I am encouraged by our industry digging into not only the hard science of snow but also communication and team-building techniques. This is a highlight for me.”