An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by William S. '21

Sophomore William S. reflects on his experience with the Lakeside Summer Research Institute (LSRI). For more information on the LSRI, see teacher Michael Town’s introductory blog.

In this month of research with the LSRI group, I asked myself how I could improve the avalanche forecasts of the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC). In my first few days, I decided to get myself familiar with all the avalanche terminology to make sure I was well-grounded before beginning to work. After a few days of gathering background knowledge, my next goal was to understand all the possible causes of avalanches. The next goal was to create a project that could benefit and improve the forecasts of NWAC.

The idea was to create a program in Python that would create a digital visualization of a snowpack in the form of a stacked bar graph. This will be helpful for backcountry travelers and others as they plan a backcountry trip. When interpreting NWAC’s narrative forecast, most travelers jot down notes or pictures in a notebook for them to look at while traveling. This task would be made much easier if a representation of the expected snow could be drawn by a program and verified by the forecaster. This would reduce the chance of human error when backcountry travelers attempt to interpret the narrative forecast. Using my visual program in addition to the narrative forecast would make it easier to remember and verify an avalanche forecast.

My program consists of a user input section, a translation section, and a plotting section. To create my program, I first coded a user interface, which prompts the user for quantitative information about the snowpack they want to visualize. This user interface asks the user how many layers the snowpack contains, the total height of the snowpack, and information specific to each individual layer, such as the height, strength, and type of layer. After the user input, the rest of my program translates the inputted information into lists which the plotting program can read. These lists include a list of hatching (lines, stars, etc.) to indicate snow forms, and a list of shading to indicate layer strength.

Below are some examples of the snowpacks my program can create. Fig. 1 is a snowpack model that displays the range of layer strength, from 1-5 (1 being strongest). This range aligns with the hand-hardness test, where a layer’s strength is determined by which object can be inserted into the layer: knife, pencil, one finger, four fingers, and fist. Fig. 2 is a simulated snowpack model that demonstrates every relevant snow form represented in the hatching of layers. 

Fig. 1: This simulated snowpack model demonstrates the strength of snowpack layers from top to bottom. The darker the layer, the stronger the layer is. 

Fig. 2: This simulated snowpack model shows examples of every type of snow form indicated by types of hatching in the snowpack layers.