A radar-based imaging system with an ability to penetrate snow-powder clouds could lead to greater avalanche protection for infrastructure.
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and tested in the Swiss Alps last winter, the Advanced MIMO Radar Development for Geophysical Imaging Applications system produces 3D images that reveal how snow flows inside avalanches.
The new data will strengthen computer models used to understand avalanche behaviours and pinpoint better defences against them. It is hoped the system could lead to more cost-effective protection – defending 1ha currently costs around £750,000.
“It’s not possible to predict precisely when avalanches will happen, but our radar imaging system aids understanding of how they behave when they do occur,” said project leader Paul Brennan.
“By penetrating the powder cloud, it can observe the nature and direction of the flow of the 90% of snow that would otherwise remain invisible.”
Using the “echo sounder” principle, the system’s antenna transmits radio waves and has a 1.95m receiver array to capture them as they reflect back from the snow.
The power and wavelength of the radio waves means the system offers greater sensitivity and higher resolution images than other similar systems.
It was developed by a team from University College London, Durham University and Sheffield University, working in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.
Avalanches kill more than 150 people worldwide each year, and cause significant disruption and damage to infrastructure. Current avalanche protection methods include snow fences, dams and reinforcing buildings.