NORWAY -- In their line of work, the phrase 'one false move' could lead to very bad circumstances. But without their ability to discover those false moves, the lives and training of military personnel could be seriously impacted.
Each morning throughout the Cold Response 2010 winter warfare exercise, several two-man teams brave the harsh wintry elements in temperatures as low as -20 degrees to survey the Norwegian terrain for potential avalanche hazards and report their findings to assist in risk management.
The dedicated soldiers are assigned to the Norwegian avalanche forecasting group and their primary mission is to assess the conditions on the terrain regarding avalanches in all of the exercise locations the participants of Cold Response 2010 will conduct training.
"Our data allows commanders to plan their training and conduct proper risk assessment," said Capt. Aanon Clausen, a member of the avalanche forecasting group. "Different levels of risk impact their freedom of movement in certain areas on the training range."
Upon their assessment, the group categorizes the risk levels ranging from Level 1 – Low, Level 2 – Moderate, Level 3 – Considerable, Level 4 – High and Level 5 – Very High which is then given out as an avalanche warning each day at 6 p.m. to all of the commanders.
"We look for instability rather than stability," Clausen said. "Instability can be a very microscopic part of a big terrain area. If you find stability, that's fine and you report it; but we are looking for areas that are unsafe." The teams conduct three different tests in the field to determine the risk of an avalanche. The first test is the shovel shear test. The shovel shear test provides information about the location where the snow could fail in shear.
The team digs a pit in undisturbed snow to expose a smooth snow wall on a safe slope representative of the slopes of interest. They can determine the location of weak or even thin weak layers in the snowpack. The second test they conduct is the compression test. This test involves tapping on a shovel on top of a 30 x 30cm column of the snowpack. The tapping force is increased after 10 and again after 20 taps, to a maximum of 30 taps.
The final test is the ECT or extended compression test, which is similar to the compression test, but it includes testing for fracture initiation and snow propagation – key elements that causes an avalanche. But some of their assessment also comes from paying close attention to warning signs that are visible to their eyes and ears.
"We are looking and listening at indicators in the snow," said Maj. Morton Bie, a member of the avalanche forecasting group. "For example, when we're riding and one of us stops next to the other on the skidoo and we hear a 'whoomp' sound, it's because the pressure is too much on the snowpack and you hear all the air compressed. You could be on a danger zone." At the conclusion of surveying the terrain, all of the teams bring their data to the Avalanche cell where they compile their assessments and give the risk level.
"It's a very serious discussion, particularly having us all to agree on a certain number to designate the risk level," Clausen said. "If you're in doubt, you're not in doubt. If one of the other teams have experienced, for example 3's all day, then the risk is a 3. Sometimes someone might have some information that another didn't think of such as previous avalanche history in an area or discovery of cracks in the snowpack." Clausen admitted that although they can't predict when and if an avalanche will occur, the forecasting teams realize their role in ensuring the training during Cold Response 2010 can be conducted with critical safety information passed on to the commanders.
"We take our mission very seriously," he said. "Each commander has to figure out what are the hazards as related to terrain and how to minimize those risks. We can't send anyone into an area where it's too risky to go into."