How Avatech Will Change Snow Forecasting

A new high-tech probe from MIT gathers more data, more efficiently. But it cannot replace the tried and true snow pit.

The AvaTech SP1 probe was sent out to avalanche centers and ski areas this winter for a beta test. Avy professionals say it's a valuable new tool to gather data quickly. But it cannot replace the protocols in place to determine snowpack stability. PHOTO: Courtesy of AvaTech
The AvaTech SP1 probe was sent out to avalanche centers and ski areas this winter for a beta test. Avy professionals say it’s a valuable new tool to gather data quickly. But it cannot replace the protocols in place to determine snowpack stability. PHOTO: Courtesy of AvaTech

The new AvaTech probe is not a replacement for any of the current protocols in place to study snow hardness. However, as far as arrows in a quiver go, the AvaTech SP1 probe and the accompanying AvaNet social platform could prove to be extremely valuable.

The AvaNet platform and the SP1 are the brainchild of three skiers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of whom was involved in an avalanche accident in Verbier while living in Switzerland. Their mission while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT was focused: develop a web-connected technology that could help mountain communities better evaluate the snowpack.

The SP1 provides a snow hardness profile similar to what a snow-safety professional would create from digging a pit, simply by probing the snow. Though the SP1 creates a much more precise profile, it is not a replacement for digging a pit and doing stability tests. “I think they are two different ways of looking at the snow,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “Hand hardness observations are a very coarse tool. The SP1 is a much more precise tool. It is hard to compare the accuracy of two tools that have very different levels of precision.”

While the probe is the most eye-catching aspect of the system, it’s the software that has so far been the most beneficial to snow safety experts. Over-simplified, AvaNet is a social media platform where experts from around the world can share their observations.

Instead, the device provides another set of data to compare to the hand pit results. Using the SP1, a snow forecaster can quickly collect readings from other zones and aspects and see if and how the profile changes. “I think the main benefit of the SP1 for us is our ability to collect a lot more data,” Greene says. “This will help us understand the spatial distribution of the snowpack structure. It will take us a while to get used to the data the SP1 provides, so it is hard to say how quickly we’ll benefit from the tool.”

The probe connects to the forecaster’s smart phone via Bluetooth and data is shared via AvaTech’s AvaNet software in real time. This could potentially allow a ski patrol director to better coordinate and prioritize avalanche mitigation while patrollers are still on routes, or help an avalanche center update their advisories while their forecasters are still in the field.

The AvaTech SP1 probe. PHOTO: Courtesy of AvaTech
The AvaTech SP1 probe. PHOTO: Courtesy of AvaTech

The SP1 was sent out as a beta launch this past winter to see how it integrates into work flow at ski areas and avalanche centers. Currently, only a few hundred are in use. The AvaNet platform, on the other hand, already has more than 1,000 users worldwide. These include avalanche centers throughout North America and Europe, utility and mining companies in North and South America, ski areas, state transportation departments, national parks, railroads, and helicopter and cat skiing operations throughout the world.

While the probe is the most eye-catching aspect of the system, it’s the software that has so far been the most beneficial to snow safety experts. Over-simplified, AvaNet is a social media platform where experts from around the world can share their observations.

“To me, it’s the ability to share snowpack info, almost real time, throughout an entire zone that makes this platform better than what we were using,” says Chris DeVito of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol. “For some reason, maybe because it’s new and slick looking, we seem to have more people sharing the pits they dig both in the ski areas and in the backcountry. Hopefully it continues.”

With the AvaNet social platform, snow safety professionals can share data easier and faster. PHOTO: Courtesy of AvaTech
With the AvaNet social platform, snow safety professionals can share data easier and faster. PHOTO: Courtesy of AvaTech

The SP1 is currently only available to snow safety professionals, and sells for $2,250. Thomas Laakso, AvaTech brand president says he foresees a cheaper, consumer model becoming available in a few years.

A consumer model wouldn’t be without risk. In the end, it will come down to how the skier uses the information the SP1 provides. “Having more information isn’t a bad thing; that’s what the SP1 provides,” says DeVito. “Knowing what to do with that info is another thing. This device gives us one more piece of the puzzle, not a red or green light.”