Jamieson, Dr. Bruce

2012 Finalist: Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Technology And Innovation sponsored by Agrium Inc.

Thermal Imaging of Seasonal Snowpack

Dr. Bruce Jamieson believes he has the best job in the world. He gets to combine his passions — mountain recreation and science — to help save the lives of people who enjoy winter backcountry sports.

“We lose too many people — especially young people — to avalanches,” Dr. Jamieson says. The thermal imaging technology he co-developed with colleague Dr. Cora Shea can improve forecasting. This innovation, along with other contributions from his research group, can help people make better decisions.

“I’d like to see more people enjoying the mountains in winter with lower risk,” says the professor in the Department of Civil Engineering of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary and is the NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) Research Chair in Snow Avalanche Risk Control.

Dr. Jamieson is an avid mountaineer. After his undergraduate degree, he travelled internationally, teaching mountain sports.

“When I returned to Canada, I was looking for a way to work in the mountains and apply science.” The idea came to him of going to graduate school specializing in field studies of avalanches. He found a supervisor who would take him on and began his studies.

Drs. Jamieson and Shea’s fieldwork indicates a relationship between a thermal image of a snow layer and its properties a week in the future. This project is among the first to attempt to correlate to avalanche stability this far into the future.

The thermal imaging of the seasonal snowpack project applies handheld thermal photography to the monitoring of the seasonal snowpack. Specifically, thermal cameras can help forecasters anticipate the formation of weak layers and slabs. Traditional methods for measuring snowpack temperatures are on the wrong scale.

“For example,” Dr. Jamieson explains, “manual thermometers 10 centimetres apart miss the formation of weaknesses above and below melt-freeze crusts. Thermal cameras can see temperature differences on the scale of grains — about 1 mm — and many hard-to-forecast avalanches release on such thin layers.”

What’s most important to Dr. Jamieson is that the research is applied.

“We have to communicate the research results to the practitioners,” he says. And since he and his team can’t meet the demand for training seminars, they began posting online videos of their presentations, which were played over 7,000 times in the last winter.

Dr. Jamieson’s research findings have allowed the thermal imaging technology to gain quick acceptance and interest within avalanche science and education. It is being used in Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand. By improving forecasting, the technology has the potential to assist winter tourism in Alberta, which suffers when backcountry enthusiasts die in avalanches.

Not only has Dr. Jamieson developed an important technology to keep backcountry expeditions and recreational mountaineers safer, he has created a program at the University of Calgary that is attracting top-notch graduate students from around the world.