She faces each workday with uncertainty.
His job is to declare an educated prediction about a winter threat notorious for its unpredictability.
Gabrielle Antonioli, 32, from Butte, works for Glacier National Park as an avalanche forecaster. She began seasonal work in April, when crews began clearing snow along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Departure to the east and to the west.
Nobody wants a snow removal crew member, searcher or park ranger to be swept away by the snow rolling down like a powdery white locomotive. Yet in recent years there has been pressure from merchants and visitors to open the road as soon as possible.
On Tuesday, the National Park Service estimated that the Going-to-the-Sun road will open no earlier than June 27 this year.
Antonioli is about to earn his master’s degree in snow science at Montana State University. Her curriculum vitae and her experience in the field paint the portrait of an expert in avalanches.
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She has worked for the American Avalanche Institute, Montana Alpine Guides and as a trainee forecaster at the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
“Bozeman is the epicenter of a lot of scientific work on snow,” Antonioli said.
In total, she spent about eight years in the specialized field of avalanche forecasting, gaining knowledge from mentors and the behavior of snow itself.
“I’m quite young for snow science because it takes time to gain knowledge and awareness through experience,” Antonioli said.
She is the first avalanche forecaster to be employed by Glacier National Park.
The daughter of Peter and Sandra Antonioli of Butte, Antonioli thinks her mother probably worries more than her father about the work she does in places where the snow is both deep and potentially dangerous.
“I guess I rationalized that there are risks in all things in life and it’s just more evident in this business,” she said.
And, like life, predicting avalanches requires a tolerance for uncertainty, she said.
Antonioli said the inherent unpredictability of avalanche forecasting calls for forecasters to set conservative margins of safety.
Early Warning Trio
His working days at Glacier National Park start early. She gets up around 3:30 a.m. She is in front of her computer, coffee in hand, around 4 a.m. She checks the weather forecast, checks if new snow has arrived overnight and consults other relevant data.
The US Geological Survey’s Garden Wall weather station is an altitude station that provides temperature data, as well as wind direction and speed.
At around 5 a.m., she or a colleague writes an avalanche forecast with observations of potential dangers to snow removal crews that day. His colleagues include Jon Hageness, an avalanche forecaster for Glacier National Park, as well as Zachary Miller, an avalanche forecaster for the USGS.
The avalanche forecasting program has been a joint project of the USGS and the National Park Service for 20 years.
Around 6 a.m., the forecasters share the day’s avalanche prognosis with the snow removal teams.
Then Antonioli and Hageness go up the Going-to-the-Sun route until they reach the crews. Both alpine touring skis have a binding that allows heel movement. They add ski skins to gain traction when climbing. They sometimes add crampons.
Antonioli and Hageness reach vantage points above the plowing and watch the avalanche paths, staying vigilant on behalf of the crews working below. According to the National Park Service, there are more than 40 avalanche paths between the avalanche campground and the rising sun.
“We communicate by radio with the crews if the snow starts moving,” Antonioli said. “Crews can’t see or hear anything in these big rigs, so we communicate with them a lot.”
Snow science has its own language, with words and phrases like corn snow, slab, surface hoar, trigger point, snow pit, frost and many more.
“We occasionally dig snow pits to check the structure of the snowpack and see where meltwater has seeped into the snow and how deep,” Antonioli said. “It helps us know if larger wet snow avalanches could be possible with an additional supply of sun or rain. With so many recent snowfalls, we dug them deeper into the top meter of snow to see in how well the new snow adheres to the old snow surface.
The National Geographic Society reports: “During an avalanche, a mass of snow, rock, ice, dirt, and other material slides rapidly down the side of a mountain. Snowslides, the most common type of avalanche, can hurtle downhill faster than the fastest skier.
“A large, fully developed avalanche can weigh up to a million tons” and can travel at over 200 mph, reports the Society.
Plowing in front
Road clearing began the first week of April and will continue until the Going-to-the-Sun road is cleared east and west to Logan Pass. The road generally opens between mid-June and mid-July.
Traders who rely on seasonal income from visiting the park tend to be anxious when the road remains closed well past mid-June.
Sometimes snow conditions stop work.
“On days of high avalanche danger, other road workers and park employees generally do not get on the road, and only emergency travel is recommended,” Antonioli said. “We’ll usually go up to a safe place and do a tour to see what’s going on up high on those days. On other days the danger will increase as the day warms up or more sun comes up and weakens the snow surface, and we will work for the morning and get everyone out in time for the increased warming , with a large (safety) margin.”
On May 26, 1953, an avalanche crossed the Going-to-the-Sun road nearly a mile above the Garden Wall road camp. It killed two road crew members, seriously injured a third, and buried the foreman in about seven feet of snow for about 7.5 hours.
It was preceded by fresh, wet snowfall of 10 to 43 cm and a letter from the park engineer to the park superintendent stating “extremely hazardous snowslide conditions”.
The body of worker William Whitford, 45, was about 800 feet below the highway, according to a National Park Service investigation that followed the avalanche. The coroner’s report concluded that Whitford’s death was caused by a crushed chest and a broken neck.
The body of 45-year-old George Beaton was about 1,200 feet below the road. He too had suffered serious injuries.
“This accident occurred while the park road maintenance crew was carrying out their normal snow removal activities for this season of the calendar year,” the inquest reported. He noted: “It should also be remembered that there is always an element of danger involved in snow clearing operations on any mountain road.”
A recommendation from the road engineer who conducted the survey: “Delay the start date of the opening of the Going-to-the-Sun road by approximately three weeks”.
The Park Service launched new regulations this year following a few close calls in recent years with avalanches and allowed hikers and cyclists beyond vehicle barricades
In May 2021, two Bigfork cyclists were trapped between two avalanches and required an overnight rescue by park rangers.
This year, the Park Service is using hiker/mountain biker closure signage to limit where people on foot or on bikes can go on the road. Closure locations will be based on assessments of potential avalanche hazard along the Going-to-the-Sun Highway, park officials said.
Avalanches play a role in supporting natural processes and biodiversity in mountain ecosystems.
Think of avalanche falls. Think blueberries.
“Avalanches are essential for the biodiversity of mountain ecosystems”, according to a study.
Climate change is now in the mix, leading some researchers to question how avalanches will behave in the future.
Meanwhile, Antonioli hopes to return to Glacier National Park in the spring of 2023 as a seasonal avalanche forecaster.
“Honestly, it’s probably one of the most unique avalanche jobs in the industry,” she said.