Tracking decision-making of backcountry users using GPS tracks and participant surveys

Hendrikx, J., Johnson, J., & Mannberg, A. (2022). Tracking decision-making of backcountry users using GPS tracks and participant surveys. Applied Geography, 144.

Traditionally, research on avalanches has focused on the physical aspects of the phenomenon, aiming to enhance our understanding of the underlying geophysical processes. However, there is a growing recognition of the importance of integrating social science contributions to assess and mitigate avalanche danger effectively. GI systems play a crucial role in this by allowing researchers to visually analyze the routes of backcountry skiers in light of weather and avalanche forecast data, This is vital for reducing the human-error involved in avalanche fatalities

In this study, researchers first collected information from participants regarding their demographic, ski skill level, backcountry skill level, and decision making strategies using a pre-season survey. These participants recorded their backcountry skiing GPS tracks during the season, which were collected by the researchers. This data was processed by converting GPS tracks into shapefiles which were overlaid on a 10m DEM and topographic map for verification. They extracted slope, aspect, and Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) ratings for each GPS point using Google Earth Engine. Finally, researchers analyzed the terrain metric and survey data using statistical tests. A General Regression Tree model was employed to explain the percentage of complex terrain chosen by participants.

Results of the study showed that, in terms of backcountry terrain use, experts spent more time in challenging and complex avalanche terrain compared to intermediates. The data indicated that experienced users had increased exposure to serious avalanche terrain, and that their terrain choices were not significantly influenced by the avalanche danger ratings. Group factors were also examined in the study. Larger groups tended to spend less time in complex terrain under low avalanche danger ratings, while groups of 2 spent more time in complex terrain under high avalanche danger ratings.

Overall, this study provided insights into the navigational choices of backcountry travelers in avalanche terrain. Since decision making, in my opinion, has played a role in all avalanche fatalities associated with backcountry skiing, this research is of great importance. It is excellent to see GIS contribute to this kind of work.