What you need to know about avalanches

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UTAH (ABC4) — On Sunday, rescue crews found the body of a man who was buried in an avalanche in Summit County.

Avalanches may seem to strike without warning, making avoiding one seemingly impossible. But, according to the Utah Avalanche Center, avalanches are often triggered and there can be signs that one is about to happen.

UPDATE: Crews recover body of man buried in Summit County avalanche, Sunday

Here are some interesting facts from the Utah Avalanche Center about avalanches that can help you be more prepared if faced with one:

  • Avalanches are often triggered by people: In 90% of avalanche accidents, the victim or someone with the victim triggers the avalanche in some way. When natural avalanches occur, it is usually because snow is blown over weak layers of snow or rapid warming weakens the layers. In these cases, there are often clear signs that the snow is unstable.
  • Avalanches are not usually made up of loose snow: Rather, dangerous avalanches are caused by plates or layers of snow which can weaken and shatter, causing them to slide. Avalanches made up of loose snow (called sluffs) do not often cause deaths or any notable damage.

According to National Geographic, these layers of snow can build up, and if the bonds between the layers are slick or weak, added weight can cause the layers to slide off. Once the snow slabs get moving, they break into many pieces.

  • Avalanches travel quickly: It can be very difficult to impossible to outrun an avalanche unless you are on a snowmobile. Even then, it’s not always possible. An average avalanche can travel about 80 miles per hour, while a large avalanche can travel faster than 200 miles per hour.

Do you know why Utah is known for having the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’?

  • Avalanche debris settles like concrete: If you are buried in avalanche debris, it can be close to impossible to dig yourself out.
  • Avalanches are not usually caused by loud noises: It would take vibration from an extremely loud noise, like an explosion, to cause an avalanche. The noise would have to occur very close and under already very unstable conditions in which an avalanche was likely to occur naturally anyway.
Courtesy: UTAH AVALANCHE CENTER
  • People caught in avalanches don’t die from lack of oxygen: Even dense avalanche debris is usually full of air. Those buried in snow are more likely to die from carbon dioxide poisoning which collects around their mouth.
  • For avalanche victims, the first 15 minutes are key: 93% of buried avalanche victims are found alive if they are rescued within the first 15 minutes. After 45 minutes, only 20 to 30 percent are recovered alive.

Now that you know these facts about avalanches, here’s what to do if you become buried in one.

WATCH: Crews create controlled snow slides to prevent avalanches

American Fork Canyon Avalanche

What do I do if I become struck in an avalanche?

  • Act quickly because once the snow comes to a stop, the debris will harden, making it difficult to move.
  • Try to get off the slab.
  • Try to grab onto a tree.
  • Swim: Human bodies are denser than avalanche debris, but you will need to swim hard to stay above the snow.
  • Keep a clear air space around your mouth as the avalanche begins to decelerate to slow carbon dioxide from building up.
  • Push your hand in the direction that you think is up to provide a visual clue for those searching for you.

How can I prepare for a possible avalanche?

According to ready.gov, here are some safety tips if you are planning to recreate in an area where avalanches are possible.

  • Travel with a buddy who can get help if you become buried or a guide who knows locations to avoid.
  • Avoid areas that are at higher avalanche risk like slopes steeper than 30 degrees.
  • Wear a helmet to avoid head injury and to create pockets of air if you become buried.
  • Wear an avalanche beacon to alert people who may be looking for you if you become buried.

Winter is a great time to enjoy the outdoors, but check Utah Avalanche Center for forecasts in your area before recreating.

For more safety information, visit Utah Avalanche Center and ready.gov.

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