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MSU professors’ research featured in New York Times

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Written by Steph Lin

Montana State University professors’ research into the so-called “human factor” in deadly avalanches was featured Thursday in a story in the New York Times.

Written by Steph Yin, the story featured research by Jordy Hendrikx, an earth sciences professor in the College of Letters and Science and director of the MSU Snow and Avalanche Laboratory, and Jerry Johnson, a MSU political science professor, also in the College of Letters and Science.

Lin wrote: “Scientists have a good grasp on how weather and terrain contribute to avalanches. Research suggests avalanche forecasts have about an 80 percent accuracy rate. But human activity is a huge — and unpredictable — factor in avalanches.”

To help understand the role that human decision-making plays in avalanches, Hendrikx and Johnson began their Tracks Project in 2013. The crowd-sourced research project invites backcountry skiers and snowmobilers to use GPS devices to record their movements in the backcountry. Those same individuals also answer survey questions to help the researchers better understand the decisions people make about recreating in the backcountry.

Lin reported that some of the researchers’ preliminary findings were intuitive, but other findings were more surprising.

“Though going out alone in the backcountry tends to be seen as risky, project respondents who were solo travelers tended to make safer choices than those who traveled in larger groups,” Lin wrote. “Some evidence suggests larger groups make riskier decisions.”

In addition, “Faced with the same avalanche conditions, experts chose steeper terrain, where avalanches are more likely to be triggered, than others,” Lin wrote.

Lin noted that Hendrikx and Johnson hope their research can help improve avalanche education efforts and, ultimately, save lives.

“At some point, I realized I could spend the next 10 years looking at the minute details of how snow surface crystals form, and maybe save one or two lives,” Hendrikx said in Lin’s story. “But really understanding the decision-making matrix, and how group dynamics affect it — I felt this is where I could make the biggest impact, and ultimately, save more lives.”

The full story is available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/science/avalanches-skiing-snowmobiles.html?_r=0.

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