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PowderPeople | Avalanche researcher Johan Gaume

Between roadgaps and cutting-edge research

by Christiane Eggert 12/24/2022
Johan Gaume is a professor at ETH Zurich and the new group leader of snow and avalanche research at the SLF in Davos. He is also a pretty gifted snowboarder! Gaume combines his hobby and profession with avalanche research. His research plays a major role in the development of 3D snowboard simulations and is of great interest to ski tourers and freeriders.

Brief profile

Name: Johan Gaume

Age: 37

Born and raised: where the eponymous and world's best sausage came from: Morteau (FR)

Occupation: professor at ETH Zurich, group leader of the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos and former professional snowboarder.

Complete the following sentences: first contact with snow was: I grew up close to a very small ski area, so I have been in contact with snow since I can remember favorite thing to do after work: spend time with family or friends favorite sport is: my first love will be skateboarding, followed by snowboarding

..skiing/snowboarding means for me: absolute freedom and a good time with friends

..that must not be missing on a ski tour/splitboard tour: Avalanche equipment and a sandwich with Comte

..after a ski tour/splitboard tour there is nothing better than: drinking a beer with friends

..I secretly dream of: being a rock star (I would need some hair transplant) favorite place to spend my vacations is: Vieux Boucau les Bains near Hossegor

..this food makes me weak: Morteau sausage, Raclette, Mont D`Or

..I like to listen to: punk rock, psychobilly and french 80's music.

..I am afraid of: Sharks and stingrays (that's why I mostly go on vacation to the Atlantic Ocean) 10 years I'll be: Hopefully still spending a lot of time in mountains and still able to jump and spin upside down.

PG: You are just 37 years young and already a professor. How did that come about? What is your professional background?

I did my Master's degree in 2008 at the University of Grenoble in the IRSTEA laboratory and then my PhD in the same laboratory. The topic of my PhD thesis was related to snow slab avalanche release. In 2013, I then obtained a postdoctoral position at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos. There I was able to extend some of my models which contributed to refining avalanche forecasting procedures and also gain practical experience. In 2016, I received a fellowship to work as a research and teaching assistant in CRYOS at EPFL (Lausanne). In 2017, I was a visiting scientist at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to work on the simulation of triggering as well as the propagation of snow slab avalanches. In 2018, I was awarded the SNF Eccellenza Professorial Fellowship and became a professor at EPFL and head of the SLAB (Snow and Avalanche Simulation Laboratory). At SLAB we studied snow avalanches with a multiscale approach, from snow microstructure failure to slab avalanche release and flow at the slope scale. In addition we extended our approaches to simulate other types of mass movements such as rock/ice avalanches and debris flows. Since 2022 I am now a professor at ETH Zurich, group leader of the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos.

So all in all, I feel I have been in the field for quite a bit and I am not that young anymore, from an academic perspective and also from my back's point of view... It's not all that special to become a professor 10 years after getting a PhD. But surely it was not easy, it required ambition, hard work and not only good ideas, I think it needs a bit of out-of-the-box thinking and perseverance when facing failure.

I see myself as a dreamer and I can be quite ambitious even when skateboarding or snowboarding. If I want to learn a new trick, I practice until I can do it and my numerous broken bones show that it does not always happen first try.

It's been the same in my career so far: when I have an idea, I really want to make it happen. Last but not least, I am lucky to have amazing collaborators and students. This is very important. Same in snowboarding with friends, I usually need some kind of collective emulation to commit. In fact, the only competitions I won in snowboarding were in teams.

PG: Have you always been interested in avalanches? What fascinates you about the subject?

I was certainly influenced by the fact that I grew up in the snow. But I started snowboarding a lot comparatively late, at the age of 16 or 17. When I was freeriding, I naturally got involved with the topic of avalanches.

It quickly became clear to me that I wanted to have something to do with snowboarding as a career. My first idea was snowboard shaper, but that wasn't very promising. Then I read about two French avalanche scientists, Mohamed Naaim and Christophe Ancey, who studied in Grenoble and decided to follow their footsteps. Fun fact: One of them became my PhD director and the other was in the jury of my defense. Today we are colleagues and collaborate.

PG: You were instrumental in developing the 3D simulation method for snow slab avalanches. Maybe a little refresher for our readers: What exactly is a snow slab avalanche?

A snow slab avalanche forms when a dense layer of snow - the snow slab - lies on top of a weak layer of snow with poor cohesion. For freeriders and on ski tours, the snow slab avalanche is the greatest danger, because snow slab avalanches are responsible for about 95% of avalanche accidents.

Unlike other avalanches, slab avalanches carry a danger which is invisible from the surface. I compare it to the collapse of a house of cards. A small mistake with the top card and everything below you collapses!

But other types of avalanches, such as glide- snow avalanches or wet-snow avalanches, are also coming more and more into focus, especially due to global warming and climate change.

PG: Thanks to you, it has been possible to model snow slab avalanches with unprecedented precision. What does your work mean for risk prediction?

Our new model allowed us to perform for the first time large-scale avalanche release simulations. In most past work, experimental or numerical modeling was done at the scale of 1 or 2 meters. Here, based on these slope-scale simulations, we discovered that we were missing one piece of the puzzle: We found that a transition occurs after a few meters of propagation of the failure in the weak layer. Something we called supershear avalanches may induce very large avalanche release zone, mostly constrained by terrain topography (The physics of snow slab avalanches resembles earthquakes - SLF). This finding will help us to better evaluate the size of potential avalanches. This is quite important for me as it relates to the consequence of a potential avalanche, not necessarily its likelihood. I personally make most of my decisions in the backcountry based on potential consequences.

---> continued on the next page.

PG: Rumor has it that you've already had a taste of Hollywood. What can you tell us about that?

I have always been a big dreamer and a huge Disney fan. I love the movie "Frozen". I know the songs by heart and the snow animation in it really impressed me. I was sure it had to be something new. There were no graphic artists or illustrators, but a whole armada of mathematicians and physicists at work. They managed to make the snow and avalanches more realistic than ever before. In fact, at the same time, I had been trying around 4 times to get funding to develop a very similar approach to simulate both the release and the flow of an avalanche using the same method, without success. I thought, ok, let's try to call them and ask if they would like to collaborate...! Bingo, the mathematician who led this work, Joseph Teran, was immediately enthusiastic and so I was allowed to work as a guest scientist at UCLA for 5 months. We improved the model, validated it based on experimental data and eventually published a Nature paper! It was a very impressive time and a lot of fun.

PG: Some of your research and findings are being used in practice. What are your next goals or what are you currently working on?

There are some consulting projects coming up. For example, on avalanche protection forests, on snow grooming and on debris flows. Our main goal is to better understand the processes at play in the initiation and propagation of mass movements such as avalanches, debris flows and rockfalls and refine empirical laws used in engineering for the design of mitigation measures. We also aim at understanding and predicting the impacts of climate change on such mountain natural hazards.

PG: Do you also travel a lot in the mountains yourself?

Currently not enough. On the one hand, I have 2 young children and on the other hand, I currently have to sit in the car for 1-1.5 hours to be in the Alps since I live in the Jura. I mostly go when the conditions are perfect.

I hope the move to Davos and the proximity to the lifts will bring a change. The goal would be to be out and about in the mountains again when they are in my backyard.

PG: Where can you be found? On or off piste?

Depends on the conditions! Definitely off-piste on powder days. In warm spring conditions, however, I still love the park and I continue to practice so I don't forget my tricks.

One goal I would have would be to show my kids a backflip or a 720 when they are teenagers. I show them now, but they are a bit young, so I always have to train hard. In the end it is a motivation to stay fit and not let the Comté and Morteau sausage control my body.

PG: What are your "tools" for the snow? What equipment is always with you?

I am always "double" on tour. Besides the obligatory avalanche gear, the most important things are: a second pair of gloves, a second goggle and tools to fix a potentially broken binding. You see, I'm more downhill oriented weight-wise.

PG: Does your profession and knowledge of avalanches make you more defensive?

I don't think my job makes me more defensive, but the fact that I'm a father. Before I had children, I was less defensive.

PG: How do you behave in a group when touring? Are you always expected to be the "professional"?

That's an interesting question. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself. Today I know that it was not the others, but myself. I often had the feeling that I was expected to do tricks and jump all around, and I broke countless bones in the process.

That was 10 years ago. Now I'm much more relaxed about it and think that everyone has to take personal responsibility on a tour, and I only jump when I feel like it and everything fits and not when I have the feeling it's expected.

PG: Have you already made acquaintance with avalanches?

Oh yes, I have already triggered hundreds of avalanches - but only in the computer. I personally prefer these kinds of avalanches, of course. Fortunately, I myself have only had acquaintance with either very small slabs or slush flows so far.

In this context I would like to put your attention to a project close to my heart: the Safety Shred Days organized by my friend Victor Daviet. It's an event for young freeriders and kids with lots of practical workshops and knowledge about avalanche awareness and freeriding. We want to teach kids and the general public early tools to recognize avalanche situations, to avoid them and to be ready to react.

PG: Johan, thank you very much for the interview.

You can find all of Johan's publications and exciting projects here.

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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