Understanding Avalanches: Thermal Conductivity of Snow (Part 1)
by Chris Chambers on June 22, 2015
Reading through our archives the other day, I came across this article about thermal conductivity and snow. It’s a unique application for a thermal properties analyzer, an interesting story, and something that may ultimately even save the lives of backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
Rich Shertzer, who finished a PhD in the program at Montana State, thinks snow may be unique among natural materials because “the thermal environment it’s exposed to every day can cause pretty remarkable changes in its microstructure.”
When Wired Magazine wrote up Dr. Ed Adams and his colleagues in February 2011, they didn’t refer to them as a team of civil engineers studying granular mechanics. Instead, they named them one of seven teams of “Mad Scientists” and called them “Snow Bombers.”
It’s not hard to find articles about Montana State University’s avalanche studies program. Just describing a typical field study makes for a good story: to investigate real-world avalanche conditions, MSU researchers sit in an outhouse-sized shack bolted to the side of a mountain while colleagues trigger an avalanche up-slope.
But this isn’t just a story about explosions and extreme sports. At its heart, it’s a story about the microstructure of a very fascinating and difficult material. Rich Shertzer, who finished a PhD in the program at Montana State, thinks snow may be unique among natural materials because “the thermal environment it’s exposed to every day can cause pretty remarkable changes in its microstructure.” A cold, sunny day in the mountains can cause significant changes in snow crystals. It can change their size and shape, but more significantly it can cause a directional orientation in snow layers.
Signs of a recent avalanche.
It’s long been empirically understood that avalanches tend to form above “weak layers” of snow. Shertzer and his colleagues are studying how the orientation of snow crystals correlates with weak layers. Most models of granular mechanics assume that the material’s microstructure is randomly arranged. However, snow layers seem to show a regular arrangement.
As Shertzer explains, “Qualitatively, people have known for a while that when you look at certain snow layers, chains of these ice grains seem to be forming. What I was trying to mathematically model is how that might affect the material properties [of snow], including thermal properties.”
Avalanche on Mt. Everest.
In order to study the thermal properties of snow samples, the research team wanted a way to measure thermal conductivity in three directions. That ruled out flux plates. Thermal probes were an obvious alternative, but they brought a different set of challenges. Snow has a very low thermal conductivity, and as Shertzer explains, “if you add a lot of thermal energy to snow, since it’s very insulative, you’ll tend to raise the temperature. Not only do we want to avoid melting the snow in the neighborhood of the probe, but we want to prevent the probe from artificially inducing the same thermal processes we’re measuring—the ones that cause the crystals to change size, and shape, and orientation.”
Read about how the team addressed these problems next week in part 2 of “Understanding Avalanches.”