Seward Hwy. to get avalanche monitor system

The Alaska Department of Transportation will be installing a new avalanche monitoring system near Seward this summer in hopes the new technology can later be implemented around the state.


Matt Murphy, DOT avalanche forecaster for the Seward Highway, said last week DOT staff hope to have a real time avalanche monitoring system installed at Mile 21 of the Seward Highway to help manage the area’s avalanches. Such management has proven tricky in the past, he said.

The technology will be new to Alaska, but it is being used in other states like Utah to help with avalanche mitigation, safety, slide-path management and emergency response.

“It is state of the art in the avalanche industry,” Murphy said.

The about $400,000 project is being funded by the Federal Highways Administration. Costs are preliminary, Murphy said.

“I am really hoping that we are going to like this technology and I would love to have it at all of the areas that affect the highways ... and it would be a huge benefit for me to have more information on when avalanches occur,” Murphy said.

Avalanche paths exist all along the Seward Highway from mileposts 18 to 107. Murphy’s office, he said, is located near Girdwood and that makes management of the Mile 21 slide path difficult. Mile 21 is south of Crown Point and north of Primrose near the IRBI Knife Shop next to Kenai Lake.

DOT staff regularly uses artillery to blast the area as part of regular mitigation efforts. But picking the right time to blast an area can be difficult, Murphy said.

“Most of the time that area is obscured with clouds so it is hard to track it,” he said. “We don’t do as good of a job managing that area as we do other areas. This technology will allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of avalanche activity down there so that we will be able to pick more pertinent times to go and shoot.”

The technology is able to sense and hear the sound of avalanches in real time. The device will be able to map the location of the slide and send an alert message to officials indicating its location and severity, Murphy said.

“When an earthquake happens, geologists are able to pinpoint where the epicenter happened and in some ways this will allow us to pinpoint where and when an avalanche has occurred,” Murphy said.

Avalanches in the area aren’t highly frequent, but they have high consequences, Murphy said. During the winter, the area will see a number of smaller avalanches that stop well above the highway’s elevation. Larger events can shut the road down for several hours at a time, posing a threat to life and safety, Murphy said.

The technology will hopefully boost response time in the event of an emergency.

“Say for example an avalanche happens at 3 a.m., well I’ll get an email that alerts me and wakes me up letting me know what happened and giving me a sense of what the magnitude was,” Murphy said.

DOT Maintenance and Operations Specialist Burrell Nickeson said DOT officials wanted to have the project completed last summer, but weren’t able to get to it. Staff is currently completing permitting work, he said.

The system will likely consist of an electronic data logger attached to a post with five or six sensors spread out from the base either buried underground or resting above ground. DOT will consider area wildlife and habitat before placement, Nickeson said.

Future maintenance of the system should be minimal, he said.

“We’ll have to work out the bugs initially in the first couple of years, but I think the idea is to set it and forget it in the winter,” Nickeson said.