There is an old story about a Russian/English computer translation system. Apparently Russian engineers asked the English to “send us hydraulic rams” and the English read “send aquatic sheep”. Such are the dangers of letting a computer do a man’s job. We have been toying with the idea of producing an English version of the French avalanche bulletin for the past few winters but doing it by hand would take too long and even with advances in computer translation the results are horrible.
In theory it could all be so much easier. In our annual review of avalanche accidents we have suggested two ways to communicate this important safety information to non-French speaks. At its heart the avalanche bulletin communicates some standard information. Snowfall over the last 24 and 72 hours. Quality of snow cover. Prevailing winds. Estimation of current and future avalanche risk. Rather than allowing a free format bulletin this information could be codified into stock phrases. One can imagine a web interface where the nivilog enters this information through a series of forms. Once click of the button and you could have basic avy information in French, English… Russian or Chinese even. This wouldn’t preclude some free format text where the author could practise his creative writing skills. Such a system, called Infolog has already been developed in the mid- 1990s.
A potentially much more interesting system is that developed by the Utah/Wasatch avalanche service and documented by Bruce Tremper in the April 2006 Avalanche Review. Tremper says that around “85% of their fatality victims did not consult the avalanche bulletin on the day of the accidents” – who says dead men tell no tails? The basic problem is simply getting people to read the bulletins in this post-literate age. Their solution was to produce a graphical version of the bulletin, brilliant!
This uses a “rose” to show the International 5 level avalanche risk scale at various slope aspects and altitudes. It then gives the probability and expected size of any avalanches on those slopes and the trend over the next 24 hours. It is a fantastic system that tells you the basics in the blink of an eye.
PisteHors has a snow and avalanche blog which tracks how conditions are evolving and of course our incident reports give an idea when something is up. Last autumn we correctly identified the dangerous base that lead to the worst winter on record for backcountry fatalities so it is well worth checking this out. We have changed the format this year so you can submit your own information as a comment. Seen any avalanche activity? Got some beta about the snow conditions, let the community know. We also send out occasional emails to all PisteHors.com members when we think the conditions are particularly dangerous.
Well nearly. This week the French Weather Service started its avalanche bulletin service for the 2006/7 season. We are experimenting with an English translation of this service. The translations are done automatically using a complementary dictionary of avalanche terms. The translations will never be perfect, the limits of computer translation coupled with grammar and spelling errors by the authors ensure that. The result still reads a little like a quatrain from Nostradamus in places but we will be improving the quality of translation over the season and we hope they will provide a useful complement to the French bulletin which we strongly suggest you consult.