Avalanches have traditionally been difficult to model and predict because of their complex nature. In the case of a slab avalanche, the sort often triggered by a lone skier or hiker, there is a layer of dense, cohesive snow atop a layer of weaker, porous snow. The presence of the skier can destabilize that inner layer, causing a fracture known as an anticrack to propagate through the slab. Eventually, it collapses under the weight of the overlying snow and an avalanche occurs.
What makes this so complicated is that the snow behaves as both a solid – during the initial fracturing – and as a fluid – during the flow of the avalanche. Researchers are making progress, though, using new models capable of simulating the full event (shown above) by leveraging techniques developed and used in computer animation for films. That’s right – the physics-based animation used in films like Frozen is helping researchers understand and predict actual avalanche physics! (Image and research credit: J. Gaume et al.; via Penn Engineering; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)