Skiing, Snowboarding: How Weather Affects Safety on the Slopes

By Kristen Rodman, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
November 22, 2013; 2:00 AM
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With winter just around the corner and the 2014 Winter Olympic games approaching, winter athletes across the globe are preparing to hit the slopes. However, winter's fury brings its own harmful threats to the well-being of skiers and snowboarders.

The northern Plains and Upper Midwest will have a snowy winter with waves of extreme cold, as the Rockies and Northwest will be buried with snow, according to the AccuWeather U.S. winter forecast. The core of winter's cold is expected to arrive later this winter in the East.

While cold air, ice and snow are favorable for some of winter's most popular sports, these weather incidents can create new health risks to winter skiers and snowboarders.

Depending on snow conditions, these dangers can range from broken limbs to head injuries. Without the proper preparations, training and pro-activeness, winter sporting activities can even be deadly.

Weather's Influence on the Slopes

These two sports and their industry are heavily dependent upon weather conditions, as air temperatures can make or break the sports' season. The environment must be exemplary for either snowfall or the snow-making processes in order for the season to be successful.

"They are constantly scanning the weather forecast to see what the low temperature will be," Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs for the National Ski Areas Association, or NSAA, Dave Byrd said.

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The most ideal conditions for skiing, snowboarding and snow-making are below 30 degrees, but the colder the better. Most man-made snow is made at night.

The quality of man-made snow improves as the temperatures get lower, according to Byrd.

When temperatures get too high, the snow can turn to slush, making it harder for active skiers and snowboarders to control their turning movements.

The weather closes in to delay the remaining competitors from starting the first training for the Men's Downhill at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

This is a major issue in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Conditions on the mountain were too warm for ideal snow composition and the Games experienced delays. This remains a vital concern for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, due to the area's Mediterranean climate.

"The mountain is about 25 miles away but can get warmer temperatures," said Byrd. "They may have to wait for a cold snap."

However, according to the AccuWeather European winter forecast ample snow is predicted for the mountain venues of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Similar to slushy snow, icy conditions can be detrimental as well. Ice issues are especially prevalent at East Coast ski resorts, as temperatures are conducive for ice formation.

The Dangers of Skiing and Snowboarding

When weather conditions aren't right, slushy snow and ice can be contributing factors to minor and serious injury incidents and even fatal accidents.

Occasionally, even avalanches can occur at popular ski resorts during the winter months, increasing the dangers and the number of injuries that snow athletes endure.

In the last ten years, approximately 41 people have died skiing or snowboarding on average each year, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Last year, there were 73 serious injuries reported.

"Fatalities are rare," Byrd said. "Most are people colliding with an object, usually a tree."

According to research by Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology Dr. Jasper Shealy, most of those fatally injured are above-average skiers and snowboarders who are going fast on intermediate trails.

Other serious injuries reported by the NSAA include paralysis, a broken back and severe head injuries, including traumatic brain injuries.

Although loss of life does happen on occasion, the most common injuries for snowboarders are wrist and elbow injuries. For skiers, typically injuries occur with the knee.

The number of injuries from skiing are less than those from swimming and bicycling, based on the number of people who participate in the sports, according to NSAA data.

In fact, the overall rate of reported skiing injuries has declined by 50 percent since the early 1970s, as stated by Dr. Shealy's research. However, the rate of injury from snowboarding as of the 2000-2001 season have increased 3.6 percent from ten years ago.

The decrease in skiing accidents may be contributed to the skier safety statutes put in place state by state.

These statutes define the responsibilities of ski areas including, closing trails, putting up signage, warning death and participating in chair lift inspections.

These statutes are also imposed on winter athletes individually, as each athlete is expected to be responsible on the mountain by knowing and adhering to various rules, like the proper ability to use a chair lift, following all signage, skiing in control based on ability and yielding to other people on the mountain.

To stay safe on the slopes, see the tips below from Byrd.

Tips for the Winter Ski and Snowboard Season:

1. Be sure to stretch, eat and stay hydrated before heading out, especially in areas with high elevations.

2. Look at the ski area's mountain trial map before skiing or snowboarding.

3. Familiarize yourself with the layout of the mountain's terrain park.

4. Bring extra sport's drinks and water with you.

5. Take a break during the day for some food and water.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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