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Understanding Avalanches: Thermal Conductivity of Snow (Part 2)

In a continuation of last week’s article “Understanding Avalanches,” we find out what conclusions Dr. Ed Adams and his colleagues in Montana State University’s avalanche studies program were able to make about measuring the thermal conductivity of snow.

Picture of a snow-capped mountain peak

In order to study the thermal properties of snow samples, the research team wanted a way to measure thermal conductivity in three directions.

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.”

Shertzer read an article about measuring thermal conductivity in liquids, where if you add too much heat, you induce convection. “Our situation is similar to that,” he explains. “Heating the needle induces local phase change.” The article gave him some ideas about delivering low levels of heat for a relatively long period of time, and he contacted Decagon to see if that option was a possibility.

Snow barriers in the Alps

Snow barriers in the Alps

Unbeknownst to him, Decagon’s research scientists had just completed a year-long project focused on reducing the contact resistance errors that occur when using the large TR1 needle to measure thermal conductivity in large-grained samples.  This made the TR1 needle a good candidate for measuring thermal conductivity in snow. The scientists were excited about modifying TEMPOS firmware to produce a low-power version that would work in snow. The resulting modification has given Shertzer some good data.

“I can definitely say that the anisotropy is there [in the snow samples]. It’s measurable and it’s significant. As the crystals reorient in these depth hoar like chains, the ice network is more conductive than the air in between. The orientation of the chains follows a direction of increased conductivity, and the directions that are perpendicular to the chains tend to decrease in conductivity. Qualitatively, it’s always made sense, and we were just looking for a way to actually relate it to properties like conductivity. Using needles to measure in three different directions simultaneously has given us the ability to measure those properties like conductivity. We expect that this orientation also affects other properties like strength and stiffness.”

Researchers stand at a sign of an avalanche

Signs of an avalanche

Thermal conductivity studies may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the conditions that cause the snowpack to fracture and trigger an avalanche—and information that may help save lives among the growing number of people who ski and snowboard the backcountry.

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