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Explosive-residue compounds resulting from snow avalanche control in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003-4007

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Abstract

A snow avalanche is a powerful force of nature that can play a significant role in developing mountain landscapes (Perla and Martinelli, 1975). More importantly, loss of life can occur when people are caught in the path of snow avalanches (Grossman, 1999). Increasing winter recreation, including skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and climbing in mountainous areas, has increased the likelihood of people encountering snow avalanches (fig. 1). Explosives are used by most ski areas and State highway departments throughout the Western United States to control the release of snow avalanches, thus minimizing the loss of human life during winter recreation and highway travel (fig. 2).

Common explosives used for snow avalanche control include trinitrotoluene (TNT), pentaerythritoltetranitrate (PETN), cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX), tetrytol, ammonium nitrate, and nitroglycerin (Perla and Martinelli, 1975). During and after snowfall or wind loading of potential avalanche slopes, ski patrollers and Utah Department of Transportation personnel deliver explosive charges onto predetermined targets to artificially release snow avalanches, thereby rendering the slope safer for winter activities. Explosives can be thrown by hand onto target zones or shot from cannons for more remote delivery of explosive charges. Hand-delivered charges typically contain about 2 pounds of TNT or its equivalent (Perla and Martinelli, 1975).

Depending on the size of the ski area, acreage of potential avalanche terrain, and weather conditions, the annual quantity of explosives used during a season of snow avalanche control can be substantial. For example, the three ski areas of Alta, Snowbird, and Brighton, plus the Utah Department of Transportation, may use as many as 11,200 hand charges per year (Wasatch Powderbird Guides, unpub. data, 1999) for snow avalanche control in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons (fig. 3). If each charge is assumed to weigh 2 pounds, this equates to about 22,400 pounds of explosive hand charges per year. In addition, 2,240 to 3,160 Avalauncher rounds and 626 to 958 military artillery rounds (explosive mass not specified) are used each year by the three ski areas and the Utah Department of Transportation for snow avalanche control in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons (Wasatch Powderbird Guides, unpub. data, 1999). The other ski area in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton, uses about 2,000 pounds of explosives per year for snow avalanche control (Michele Weidner, Cirrus Ecological Solutions consultant, written commun., 2001).

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Explosive-residue compounds resulting from snow avalanche control in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
2003-4007
Year Published:
2003
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Utah Water Science Center, WY-MT Water Science Center, Branch of Analytical Serv (NWQL)
Description:
41 p.